Features 2 minutes 20 October 2020

Feeding the Family

A closer look at the longstanding tradition of family meal, or staff meal, in restaurants.

California Event

Restaurants are built around a community. In obvious terms, this means a perfectly orchestrated experience catering to paying customers. In not so obvious terms, restaurants are the nucleus of a network of growers, pickers, sellers, specialists and artisans. They are a space where cooks, dishwashers, chefs, servers and managers come together to do their best work.

The metaphors for restaurant communities are countless, but none are so often used, or so sentimental, as family. And because it’s personal, every time a restaurant closes at the hands of the pandemic or suffers from the effects of rampant natural disasters, the impact is both devastating and far-reaching.

After a long and difficult summer, The MICHELIN Guide is pausing to bring attention to the strength and resilience of its restaurants, which have been continuously on display since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, October 27th The MICHELIN Guide is hosting a virtual event to bring together leaders in the industry for a conversation and celebration of what makes the struggle worth it: community.

The event is inspired by family meal — not the meal served to guests in the dining room, but the behind-the-scenes feeding of a restaurant’s staff.

As long as there have been restaurants, there has been a need for family meal, or staff meal as some call it. It wasn’t until 1999, when Chef Thomas Keller devoted a section to staff meal in his seminal The French Laundry cookbook, that the concept became a part of the dining public’s vocabulary. A year later, Chef David Waltuck of the iconic New York restaurant Chanterelle published one of the earliest single-subject books about family meal.

By 2009, the once-private act of feeding the staff had become a favorite subject of food writers, leading to a proliferation of family meal cookbooks with recipes that codified the off-the-cuff experience. Most famously, perhaps, was The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià of Spain’s Three MICHELIN Star restaurant el Bulli.

Some might define family meal by its utility: A meal provided by management to keep employees full of energy for hours of work ahead. Others might invoke romantic imagery of breaking bread and fortifying the bonds between a brigade.

Regardless of its history and symbolism, the resounding truth is that family meal is as diverse as the restaurants that serve it. From craftily utilizing leftovers to placing special orders for ingredients; from giving prep cooks a chance to sharpen their skills to letting dishwashers or servers show off a special hometown dish — there is no one way to do it.

At Two-MICHELIN-Starred n/naka in Los Angeles, Chef Niki Nakayama and her team make the most of surpluses from their multi-course bento box, which they are offering for takeout during the pandemic. Fish collars, for example, and rice are repurposed into satisfying post-service meals. “It’s great to have everyone gather around, eat some good food and relax after service,” said Nakayama. Dining on the same high-quality foods as paying guests is a welcome reward for a day of hard work, and the team gets a moment to regroup.

Chef Rocio Camacho of Rocio’s Mexican Kitchen, a Bib Gourmand in Los Angeles, feels personally responsible for not just feeding her staff, but taking care of them too. When the pandemic struck, Camacho packed baskets of excess inventory for her employees to take home for their own family meals. “We value our restaurant family as much as our family at home and we have the privilege of working together with most of them for many years,” she said. The staff at Rocio’s even shares meals together over the holidays — the Christmas feast usually consists of tamales, pozole, punch and a Mexican holiday specialty, romeritos greens stewed in mole.

At Chef Michael Cimarusti’s Two-MICHELIN-Starred Providence in Los Angeles, family meal is both restorative and a space for exploration. But instead of just cooking with trimmings, Cimarusti often invests in the ingredients his team might need, whether it’s for marinated pork tacos (a recurring Saturday meal complete with from-scratch salsas, guacamole, corn and flour tortillas) or a dish like a Thai larb, which would not typically feature on Providence’s menu but might be a staff member’s curiosity project. “Family meals have always been an important part of our day,” he said. “Having time to sit down as a team to share a meal allows us all to take a deep breath, relax for a few minutes and prepare for the night ahead.”

It's clear that in each of these cases, and countless others across the country, family meal is an extension of a restaurant's values. At their best, restaurants provide a break from the daily grind, an opportunity to connect, and the promise of good food — for everyone. 

The MICHELIN Guide has invited Chefs Nakayama, Camacho and Cimarusti along with some of their peers to join us for a virtual family meal on October 27th. Tune in at 4 PM PST / 7 PM EST for an evening of cooking and conversation highlighting support, sustainability, innovation and the future of the industry at large.

Click here to reserve your seat at the event and enter the sweepstakes for a chance to win tickets to The MICHELIN Guide’s 2021 Star Revelation event.

Hero Image: Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash


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