Throughout college, I worked as a server in a sushi restaurant in New York’s Upper West Side.
While it wasn’t my first job in a restaurant, it was my first experience working with a group of fast friends who, with each shift, began to feel more like family. (An incredibly wacky, dysfunctional family – but aren’t most?) This was also my experience with the service industry tradition known as “family meal.”
Family meal is an industry tradition most diners rarely, if ever, witness.
After all the soy sauce containers were filled and chopsticks were rolled in white napkins, we’d head to the cramped kitchen space (this was New York, after all) and help ourselves to family meal before dinner service began. Our shared feast could range from the dreaded sushi pizza (dough topped with a spicy tuna “sauce” and seaweed salad “cheese” when they really wanted to get rid of the stuff) to the occasional improvised pasta dish (which was always a welcome change from daily Asian flavors) to a simply delicious broccoli sautéed with soy sauce, saké and garlic, served over fragrant white rice with plenty of silky miso soup on the side.
But no matter what was put out on a given night for family meal, it was always served with plenty of laughter, a healthy dose of good-humored insults, and a friendly bet or two. After all, this was our last chance for banter with the kitchen until the final guest had departed and we could reconvene at the bar for saké.
Family meal is an industry tradition most diners rarely, if ever, witness. Not only is it an opportunity for a restaurant’s staff to bond while nourishing themselves before a busy shift, but it’s often a crafty way for the kitchen to utilize leftovers and experiment with dishes that might eventually make it to the menu. Some restaurants use the opportunity to empower cooks all the way down the line to step away from prepping and try their hand at creating a main course.
At Lenoir, even the front of the house gets in on the action by handling the meal every Saturday.
It gives us our sense of community… sitting down and being together.
– KRISTINA BOXER, MANAGER AT LENOIR
Inspired by a program at Bouley in New York, Lenoir co-owners Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher have turned family meal into a friendly competition each month. One person makes dinner each day for a week and, at the end of the month, everyone votes on a winner. Not only is the competition fun, but it fosters kitchen creativity, and the reward comes in the form of more culinary exploration. Prizes range from bottles of wine to gift certificates to restaurants like qui or Uchiko.
“As much as they might disagree, I don’t pay them a lot, but going out to eat is an important part of their life, and it should be,” says Duplechan. “Seeing what other people are doing and enjoying it – but paying for it – is not always that feasible.”The Lenoir team recalls some of their recent favorite dishes: cook Zach Riddle’s lemongrass chili fish cakes over greens; croissants served with a goat terrine whipped with ricotta by pastry chef Jasmine Jones; hostess Marie Myers’ famous cookies; and the variety of curries for which sous chef Melissa Moss is known.
“It’s kind of my go-to family meal,” says Moss. “I make curry often, but because of what we have in our kitchen, everybody kind of does. It works well with our restaurant. We always use a little bit of leftovers. I pick through the walk-in and try not to take too much of any one thing.”
They sit down at the large centerpiece farmhouse table in Lenoir’s ethereal dining room and mellow chatter mixes with the soundtrack, which today includes Tame Impala and Washed Out.
“Usually there will be some jokes being told, or maybe not entirely restaurant-appropriate conversation,” explains manager Kristina Boxer with a smile. “Right now, we have several new people on staff, so it gives everybody a chance to get used to each other. It gives us our sense of community, I think, sitting down and being together. Owners Todd and Jess insist that we take the time to sit down and have family meal together. So it’s a rule, which is cool.”
“It’s palpable how much everyone gets along better from just this,” says Duplechan. “And everybody gets fed… and it’s good to have a legitimate, unprocessed meal every day.” Today’s main course is a rabbit coconut curry served with lemon pickles, plain yogurt, and a rice sprinkled with crunchy bits of coconut and cashew croquant.
“One of my favorite things is to steal all the pastry place and put it in my savory dish,” says Moss. “So our leftover desserts are often familied, which is is a nice treat for people who like sweets.” She pauses and adds, “Yes, familied– it’s a verb.”
“We’re pretty spoiled here, I’d say,” says server Lauren Katz over a steaming bowl of curry, and server Kelly Barnes chimes in, “I just fast until I get here on most days.”
Across town at Contigo, bartender Jen Keyser admits to coming into work 30 minutes to an hour early just to partake in family meal.
Much like Lenoir, when family meal is ready, the kitchen is required to stop prepping long enough to sit down and enjoy the meal together. Paul Courtright, the new beverage director for Contigo and Gardner, explains, “The reason we’re doing all this is for hospitality and the pleasure of sharing food with our guests, so it’s nice that the staff has a chance to do that with each other – have conversations and catch up or just sit and get ready for the show.”
While the servers slide into bar stools inside, the kitchen staff naturally gravitates to the sunny outdoor tables. “I think this has to do with the fact that our front of house is outside throughout the shift while our back of the house is stuck inside all night,” says manager Dana Curley. “But if it’s a beautiful day, we’re all outside!”
Contigo’s family meal ranges from charcuterie left over from catering to experiments repurposed from leftovers. For one notorious meal, the kitchen deboned leftover fried chicken drumsticks, made them into a chicken salad, and formed them into breaded balls which were then fried again – twice fried chicken. They recently enjoyed a steak night in honor of a sous chef who was moving on. And they often get treated with homemade cherry pie and Klondike bars from server Erin Corrigan and coffee cake from hostess Molly Thurin.
Contigo’s family meal ranges from charcuterie left over from catering to experiments repurposed from leftovers.
“Typically it’s leftovers, recipes we’re working on, and we try to round it out with ingredients we just have around in the refrigerator,” says chef de cuisine Ryan Town. “This is a good testing grounds, and a way to get a lot of feedback, so most of our menu items will come out for family meal before we ever serve it to guests.”
Today’s pork blood pudding, he points out, will be toned down in spices and added to the brunch menu very soon. Once a week, they test out a catering menu to train the kitchen staff. Tonight’s chicken was cured in smoked bacon, then fried in cornmeal and served with green tomatoes and grilled squash.
“Obviously there’s a great technique to using ingredients that most people would consider trash, but they utilize them and make something delicious,” says server Kendra Thompson. “Andrew and Ryan and everyone in the kitchen really utilize everything in the house the best they can. And it really shows.”
The staff of Dai Due not only get to sample items from the menu, which changes daily, but they also occasionally get to reap the benefits of owner Jesse Griffiths’ hunting expeditions. After a recent dove hunt, he says, “Since I don’t live at home anymore – I live here – I figured I wasn’t going to be able to eat them, so I decided to treat the staff to them today!”
Doves are protected game animals and, without an inspection, he wouldn’t be able to sell them in the restaurant. So, he simmered them in a simple dark roux, served alongside bright orange honeyed carrots from Johnsons’ Backyard Garden and some incredibly thick, creamy grits.
“We’re eating what the customer eats – super healthy,” says bar manager Justin Chamberllin. “It’s high in protein, so it makes us work hard. He’s got a whole master plan behind feeding us well!”
“I think people work better and they’re happier when they’re well-fed,” says Griffiths. “And it gives us a chance to feed them the food that we’re serving, too, and make that accessible. I mean, it’s not complicated – it’s just a really good quality meal before service. It’s good for us and good for them to be well-fed and nourished.”
The staff of Dai Due not only get to sample items from the menu… they get to reap the benefits of owner Jesse Griffiths’ hunting expeditions.
Server Clinton Tedin describes a recent meal that featured a variety of sausages, venison hot dogs, house-made curtido (made with fermented carrots and cabbage), and Fireman’s 4 mustard. “That was pretty awesome – I think I had like three hot dogs!” he recalls.
While the team chats and relaxes in the very same seats that will soon be filled with customers, Dorsey Bargar from Haubar Farms stops by with a delivery. They beckon her to come join the feast.
“I used to deliver for my husband’s farm, Triple R Farm, and I would purposely try to hit the restaurants during family meal,” says hostess Renee Rangel with a laugh. “It’s fun! I’d say, ‘Should I go to Olive & June today or should I go to Barley Swine?’”
At the end of the meal, plates are scraped and bones and scraps go to compost. “We compost everything and recycle everything,” says manager Caroline Forbes. “It’s something we’re really proud of here – there’s very little trash.”
The back of the house assumes their positions in the butcher shop and in front of the wood fired grills of the open kitchen while the front of house starts to sweep the floor and wipe down tables in preparation for dinner service.
“Now I just need a beer and a nap!” says Tedin.
“How about another piece of cake?” suggests Chamberlin.
“I don’t want to be that guy…” Tedin insists.
Chamberlin swings by for another slice of lime angel food cake on his way back to the bar. “Well, I’m gonna be that guy,” he says.
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