Monday, April 2, 2007

Family Meal

Nothing can engender more controversy in a restaurant than Family Meal. For those unfamiliar with the term, Family Meal or Staff Meal is the dinner prepared by the kitchen to feed the staff before dinner service. Too often, it is cheap, poorly prepared, insufficient, and/or downright disgusting. Nobody wants to be the one to make Family Meal. It usually falls to the lowest ranking cook. When I first worked at the Occidental Restaurant in Washington, DC, it was me.

A shelf was set aside in the walk-in cooler for all the leftover mise en place, bits of vegetables a little old for service but not too bad to eat, a pile of grilled steaks from last night’s banquet that didn’t get served because the host didn’t account for the Indian family, lettuce beginning to wilt, poached bits of fish trim, yesterday’s bread, and, on Monday, a big bucket of cracked eggs left from Sunday’s brunch service. My responsibility was to convert these bits and pieces into a suitable meal for forty to fifty people. It had to be presentable enough for the raging and abusive Sous Chefs. It had to be filling, satisfying the brigade of Salvadoran dishwashers that frugally ate their one meal a day at the restaurant. It had to have vegetarian options for the two servers who, stridently vocal, didn’t eat meat and haven’t eaten meat in 11 years and have a right to a meal without meat. It had to taste good or I’d risk the ridicule of the senior cooks, which at that point was everyone. And, ideally, in the Chef’s eyes, it should cost nothing and take no time away from my set-up, itself a formidable task.

Theoretically, my morning counterpart would set me up for Family Meal. But as busy as he was with prep and lunch service, he’d usually leave me little help. Usually, none. He’d leave me nothing prepared for staff, little mise en place for my station, and scant notes about what was needed for either. Demoralizing at first, my survival of this situation made me a nearly indestructible line cook. I began to arrive early, working off the clock for a few hours to get my prep done. I drove myself to get faster, becoming more efficient in my work. Finally, I’d take items home and prep them there. An especially daunting item was the daily production of perfect lemon, lime, and orange segments, at least a pint each, as well as hair-fine lemon, lime, and orange zest, blanched, 1 cup each. Picking thyme was a good one to take home as well, because it is a slow and delicate process, and because it was a favorite piece of mise en place for other cooks to ‘liberate’ from my station.

Once I developed a program where I was consistently ahead on the menu mise en place, I began to turn more attention to staff meal. I’d toss out a simple meal one day; salads with focaccia pizza, and then use the time to prep the next day’s meal. Two ingredients that were perennially on the Family Shelf, squash guts and greens stems, were always a challenge. Squash guts were the remnants of yellow squash and zucchini that had had their yellow and green exteriors shaved off with a mandoline for vegetable spaghetti. This was the most despised ingredient, always present, always flavorless. Greens stems were the stems and heavy leaves of greens, often Swiss chard and rapini, that were unsuitable for ala carte service. These two vegetable parts danced with each other in my meals. I’d try to get the texture and flavor of the greens to balance the bland sogginess of the squash guts. This dance occurred in pastas, risottos, casseroles, soups, and on pizzas.

Pasta was and is a Family Meal favorite. Cheap, fulfilling, and easy, we always kept a big sack of dried inexpensive penne for Family Meal. Everything can become a pasta. Chicken hind quarters were usually in abundance as we butchered whole chickens for the chicken breasts. Occasionally we’d pull all the beef, veal, and pork trim out of the freezer and grind it up for meat loaf. The two days worth of Family Meal this provided was a godsend, giving me a whole day off of Family Meal to catch up on ala carte mise en place.

Of course, what I learned through this process, in addition to how to plan my production days in advance, please entirely disparate groups of hungry people, and keep up with a ridiculous load of prep responsibilities; was to cook, really cook real meals for real people. The process of preparing plates of food in a fine dining restaurant is assembly and production. We make this sauce, pre-roast that meat, pre-blanch these vegetables, then, to order, finish the sauce, re-heat and slice the meat, and re-warm the vegetables in butter and season it all. It is the only way to produce hundreds of plates a night, and I was learning that skill every day at the Occidental. But what I also learned every day was cooking at a more fundamental level. I made stews, soups, and casseroles. I roasted, grilled, and barbecued chicken hind quarters every way imaginable. I cooked dinner, placed it on the stainless steel table in front of my station, and stood there prepping my station for dinner service. Each member of the staff then filed by and filled their plates, commenting on what I had presented them. They would comment after too, mocking or praising, sometimes both at once.

I fed the people. At 3:45 PM, every day, I was the most important person in the restaurant, especially if some particular tasty treat had wandered onto the Family shelf. If Family Meal was especially bad, I’d not be invited for beers after work and the chefs would scream at me and everyone would complain. If really good, I might get a smile from the pretty redheaded waitress named Sara that I knew I never had a chance with. But it was immediate, the pain and joy. And intimate.

Two meals, simple and quick to prepare, are adaptations of Family Meals I have made. Both are chicken, and you can actually use the leftover Rosemary-roasted chicken to make the Gnocchi dish if you like. One might even get you a smile.

Gnocchi with rapini, squash, braised chicken, and figs

A white Burgundy, such as a true Chablis or an unoaked American Chardonnay such as 2006 Ponzi Chardonnay Wilamette Valley

Rosemary-roasted chicken breasts, new potatoes, garlic pan broth

Icardi Barbara d’Alba ‘Suri Di Mu’ 2000

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this is so sad, your hate to cook for the people you work with. It was Thomas Keller who says if you can put as much passion into staff meal, then, MAYBE THEN, will you be a great chef.