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Eat Feature

Feeding Like a Family

Often Tense, Usually Tasty, and Never Seen by Outsiders, the Staff Meal for Many Restaurant Workers is Like Home Away from Home

Sam Holden

Eat Special Issue 2004

Home Sweet, Tasty Home Few things give us that feeling of being warm, cozy, comfy, and cared for like our home--unless of c...

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Eat 2004

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 2/25/2004

Is a happy restaurant a good restaurant? Undoubtedly, some of the greatest meals you've ever had in a restaurant were produced in an atmosphere of mutual loathing: cokehead owners, bullying chefs, disreputable line cooks, weaselly waitstaff, and malevolent managers, all at each other's throats. But if you really want to know how deep the lines of resentment can run in a restaurant, ask someone who works at one about the staff meal.

Known also as "the family meal," this is the typically modest grub whipped up by the kitchen to nourish employees before the long haul of the evening begins. The back-of-house staff, already resentful about the wads of cash they see bulging in waitron pockets, can feel doubly galled by having to feed people they regard as hopelessly spoiled. And imagine how thrilled the kitchen is when a waiter actually complains about the staff meal, or makes special requests. Some of the most vicious rhetoric on "In the Weeds," the snarky public forum on the restaurant-related Web site, concerns this topic. Then there are places where the staff gets nothing. The management of these restaurants believe that their employees are capable of feeding themselves before they show up for work--employees of a shoe store don't get free shoes every shift, they analogize. An employee of one of the city's hottest restaurants told me that the staff gets not so much as a grain of rice before jumping into an eight-hour trudge into the weeds. Suddenly that place seems a lot less attractive.

But for outsiders, people not in the business, there's another aspect to the family meal that intrigues--the conviction that the kitchen staff of ethnic restaurants eat a kind of authentic food that's considered too dodgy or delicate to serve the general public--something homier, spicier, or just kind of gross. Recently, I returned to Uncle Lee's Szechuan, where some 20 years ago I was a member of that restaurant's first corps of non-Asian waiters. It was my recollection that the Asian and non-Asian staff were prepared different meals. I remember being intrigued and slightly repulsed by the other meals. I remember seeing parts of fish and chicken never before seen in my boneless/skinless universe. I remember feet.

My former employers were nice enough to re-create for me the classic staff meal, and I at first was concerned that they took it too easy on me. There were exotic mushrooms (what were they?) in the stir fry but nothing too unusual. But they weren't mushrooms, they were chicken feet. It turns out that feet, when braised, have the consistency of squid. I don't think I like feet too much. But if you call ahead, maybe they'll save a few for you.

A lot of times, we all know, the staff of a kitchen has come to Baltimore from a country of origin other than the one whose food is served in the restaurant. Much more so in New York or Los Angeles than here, the people who prepare the food at seafood houses, Italian restaurants, and French bistros sometimes make for themselves and for other staff the simple, everyday food of their homes in Mexico, Central America, and Cuba.

Isidro Angel (pictured, holding plates) runs the kitchen at Aldo's Ristorante Italiano, where the staff meal is typically wolfed down standing up in the kitchen. Often this staff meal is barely noticed, the typical mélange of rice and leftover meat, but occasionally Angel will make something from his hometown, Puebla, the birthplace of Mexico's beloved and famously complex mole sauce. For a visit by an interested food writer, Angel sent home for his mother's mole starter, a paste of bread, chiles, nuts, spices, and Mexican chocolate that is then enlarged and extended into a poultry-loving brown sauce. Not to sound smug, but now I know what mole is. Hats off to any restaurant that tries to serve a respectable mole sauce, but it's not what this was--involved, demanding, and luxurious. We also had tostadas layered with refried beans (in a nice bit of culture crossing, black beans were replaced by Italian cannellini), fresh guacamole, homemade hot sauce, and tasty but unspecified ground meat. If you found a Mexican restaurant that served something even remotely like it, you'd never eat anywhere else.

Compliments were showered, plates were placed in bus trays, stomachs were full, and the real work of the evening began. Maybe you ate at Aldo's later that night, or maybe you ate at a restaurant where the only food the waitstaff had was whatever you didn't finish on your plate.

The first thing I notice when I walk into a restaurant is its vibe, a prevailing spirit that governs the restaurant. I've stopped going to a convenient neighborhood restaurant because the staff is so uniformly mean, and I've been told too many times how badly treated by management these people feel not to believe it a little.

So, does the staff meal matter? I think it does.

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