When the mission of a restaurant is to feed and nourish, starting with the staff just makes good sense. In The Family Meal, author and El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià describes how they actually call their staff meal “family meal: “we believe that if we eat well, we cook well,” he said. And as simple as that may sound, it’s really at the heart of it all.
It could look something like this: proper wine glasses, real silverware and white napkins. But it could also look like sandwiches and skillet cake. Staff meals, a common ritual and routine at restaurants around the country, vary dramatically. Not all small businesses can afford to serve their staff the same food that diners eat that evening, and yet, they want to feed them well. In this time of giving, how do small food businesses create meaning in an affordable shared meal that’s often prepared in the midst of kitchen chaos?
On one end of the spectrum are staff meals at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse. Things are different here. Holly Peterson, a café cook at the restaurant, says it didn’t take long for her to figure that out. She’s been at the restaurant for a little over two years, much of which was spent at the garde manger station where she planned, cooked, and enjoyed hundreds of staff meals. At 8 p.m., the cooks from the downstairs restaurant all sit down together and taste each other’s food with a glass of wine that compliments the meal.
Down the road a bit in West Berkeley sits Dafna Kory’s bustling INNA Jam kitchen. Like many small business owners in the beginning, Kory began working solo in the kitchen. There were busy days filled with long hours. But when she started hiring, Kory no longer felt right about subsiding solely on energy bars. “Having real meals didn’t start until I had real people working for me,” she said. “There’s a paradox that I don’t accept of being hungry and working in a kitchen. I wasn’t going to see that happen.” INNA Jam is different in that they make a condiment, so there isn’t extra produce or leftover meats, fish, or pasta in the walk-in. In this way, Kory has to actively plan for each meal. This planning has taken on many iterations in the last year, and it’s constantly evolving based on the seasons, the production schedule, and the extent to which she can find family and loved ones to contribute.
Across the bridge in San Francisco, Anna Derivi-Castellanos of Three Babes Bakeshop can relate to this kind of planning. They too are unique in that they’re producing a single product: pie. And they work long night shifts, so it’s important to have some savory options in the kitchen to keep everyone’s energy and blood sugar up. Derivi-Castellanos laments, “I wish that I had more time to plan our staff meal, but usually I try to keep it simple, and loop it in with part of our production. If we're making something that day that could be considered dinner, (a savory or pot pie, for example) then I'll make more of it.”