Family Meal

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By Erin DeWitt
March/April 2010

So much must be done before a restaurant gets ready to open for the night: prep the food, set the tables, make sure the bar is plenty stocked. Prior to starting a long night of busy service, some restaurants gather together for a “family meal.” This gives employees a chance to sit down and break bread with their fellow co-workers. The meals can be anything and everything, usually what is readily available around the kitchen, a new menu item the restaurant is considering, or the result of a spark of imagination from the chef. Whatever the dishes might be, family meal is always a hearty experience, making sure all employees start their shift with a full, happy belly and a warm sense of camaraderie.

South County gem Sapphire Laguna shares in this ritual every day. Sometimes held before the shift and sometimes after, the gracefully laid back and inviting restaurant’s family meals accommodate anywhere from 14 to 25 people and are prepared by different cooks each time, depending on who is available.
“The available ingredients usually serve as the inspiration for the evening’s family meal,” says Sapphire Owner and Chef Azmin Ghahreman. “We also incorporate future specials and change the cuisine based on what the cook is feeling. Cuisines can range from Vietnamese to Mexican to good old fashioned meatloaf and mashed potatoes.”

Family meal is also a great way to test drive new menu items, which are cooked in Sapphire’s impressive exhibition kitchen. “Family meals are the best and easiest way for the staff to try a new dish and give immediate feedback,” says Chef Ghahreman, though he describes some of the staff meal favorites to include cuisines from all over the world. “Vietnamese fried rice with eggs, turkey chili and grits, and anything served in a taco. Among the chefs, we get a little more daring on the items we make such as pig’s feet soup and Hawaiian oxtail stew.”
“It is hard to not create a sense of community when everyone is gathered around and sharing a moment of joy while being able to laugh with each other and break bread,” says Chef Ghahreman. “To me, that is what community is all about. It starts from a small social gathering.”

Hotels, however, have a slightly different take on the conventional family meal. With literally hundreds of employees, it’s near impossible to get everyone to sit down at a table together. Rob Wilson, Executive Chef of the luxurious Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, describes their version of the staff meal. “Here at the Ritz-Carlton, we have an employee cafe that is open from 6am – 9pm daily. All of our employees are able to use the cafe on their breaks free of charge. The menu varies from week to week as we feed from 300-700 employees a day, depending on business in the hotel.”

“We are like one large family,” says Chef Wilson, “and on any day, at any time, there can be 50-60 employees in the cafe from different departments enjoying each other’s company while they dine. I know it’s not the traditional family meal you would get in a restaurant but with 700+ employees, that’s how we make everyone happy.”

It’s the strong sense of community that makes family meals such a success. Thomas Keller took this principle and created an entirely new kind of restaurant, as described in his cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, which came out just last November and is featured in our books section (page 5). He devotes an entire segment to his “accidental restaurant, ” in which Keller writes, “So I thought of the simplest restaurant possible, one founded on a style of cooking we do for ourselves every day, if not twice a day, at all our restaurants: preparing the family (staff) meal. Maybe we could create a restaurant that fed our community in the same way we feed ourselves.”

“Ad Hoc” means something that is for one specific purpose and no other, often improvised or impromptu. No menu, no choices: whatever the chefs were serving, that’s what was on your plate. But the daily meals weren’t your average fare. True, Ad Hoc focuses on comfort foods and dishes inspired by traditional home cooking, but with chefs like Dave Cruz and Jeff Cerciello, the restaurant’s dinners were exemplary to say the least. Grilled beef flatiron; meatballs with papperdelle and mushroom sauce; smoked trout and romaine salad; Tennessee-style barbeque; coconut cream pie – this was something extraordinary.

“The staff meal cook is a low man in the kitchen hierarchy. You cook meals from scraps for people who work in the kitchen:” writes Keller in his French Laundry Cookbook. “Staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with by-products, using scraps to make something tasty, eye-appealing, and satisfying. But the message underlying that was Can you be passionate about cooking at this level?’ Staff meal. Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity, and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you’ll be a great chef. Maybe.”

Sapphire Laguna, 1200 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, CA, 92651. 949.715.9888 www.sapphirellc.com

Ritz-Carlton, One Ritz-Carlton Dr., Dana Point, CA, 92629. 949.240.2000 www.ritzcarlton.com

Ad Hoc, 6476 Washington St., Yountville, CA, 94599. 707.944.2487 www.adhocrestaurant.com