What's Cooking for the Kitchen

Staff meals

So Judd Hirsch and Tony Danza both had something going with Marilu Henner while they all starred together in Taxi. How do you like that? I gleaned this tidbit of trivia while watching one of Entertainment Tonight's behind-the-scenes specials that focus on faded TV shows. We've all become passive observers of one ever-running Big Brother television series, and the once secretive world of restaurant kitchens, like everything else, has in recent years been opened up for public scrutiny. Anthony Bourdain created the biggest stir with his now infamous restaurant exposé Kitchen Confidential, and if we're to take him at his word, many of the cooks and chefs who prepare our meals are renegade substance-crazed louts who somehow manage to stay conscious just long enough to push out desserts. Even substance-crazed louts must get hungry once in a while, so I asked around to find out what the chefs and workers in our restaurants eat for dinner on the job. Their answers offer no enlightenment concerning dining locally, but they do give us insight into back-of-the-house politics, the sometimes upstairs-downstairs dichotomy that exists between employees and diners at our finer establishments. And inquiring minds just might want to know.

The notion of a "chef's table," wherein patrons pay lots of money to sit and dine in fine restaurant kitchens, is based on the old French practice of having a big table in the kitchen where the front- and back-of-the-house workers would share a hearty meal each night before service. Modern-day restaurateurs, who pay an arm and a leg per square foot, generally don't set aside such an area, but most develop one strategy or another for providing a staff meal. This is considered a reasonable expenditure of course, but restaurants still have to control the costs. You don't want to be chop-suey cheap and demoralize your workers right before they begin their shift, but, as Cindy Hutson of Ortanique says, "Obviously I'm not cooking them rack of lamb or veal chops." Don't feel badly for her crew, though, as their menu for this night was guava-glazed smoked baby-back ribs with Jamaican rice and peas. Note that the meal is island influenced, like the cuisine at Ortanique, which makes sense; if the kitchen is preparing gallons of guava glaze and a pot of rice and peas for dinner service, they simply have to make a little more to keep the employees happy.

"We use what we've got," echoes Le Festival's chef Jean Pierre Terrou, "preferably something not too expensive." Trimmings saved while preparing fish, meat, and, poultry certainly fit this bill. The chain of meat that runs along a beef tenderloin, along with those ends and pieces that can't be cut into neat filets, are particularly popular among cooks and their cohorts. Sometimes they'll use this meat as the base for a stir-fry, other times turn it into a quick-cook beef stew, which, along with mashed potatoes, was what Le Festival's staff was eating tonight. And what will Jean Pierre be dining on? "Beef stew and mashed potatoes," he replies, adding that he sits down for dinner with everyone, from maitre d' to dishwashers, at 5:00 each evening. Only the executive chef refrains from dining at that time.

Beef stew and mashed potatoes may not seem an appropriately haute meal for the workers at a fine French restaurant, but at least they get to dine in an elegant environment. Employees at the trés upscale La Palme d'Or in the Biltmore Hotel eat their meals downstairs in an employee cafeteria, as do those at chic Bice in the Grand Bay Hotel. Large hotels such as these have to feed hundreds of workers at a time, so it's more feasible to handle things this way. The Bice and Palme staffs can take comfort in knowing they have a much wider variety of meals to choose from than do their colleagues in smaller establishments. Tonight's dinner offered a choice of roast beef or breaded sole, each of which comes with two vegetables and access to a full salad bar of soup, sandwiches, fresh fruit, and wide range of desserts. Grand Bay's food-and-beverage director Brian Reed makes a convincing case for this being a high-end cafeteria, but the cuisine here clearly ain't no osso bucco with porcini risotto.

Sometimes staff meals are well-organized affairs, like at Norman's, where each evening a different station (garde manger, pasta/paella, grill, and sauté) is responsible for making dinner. "Gotta give them enough protein or they get upset" says Chris, who as pasta/paella man, was designated to put together curried chicken and pork with couscous for some 30 employees. The front-of-the-house team helps itself to a buffet table that's set up between the main and pastry kitchens, then disappears to the dining room where the group sits and eats in peace. No such luxury for the kitchen players, who fill plastic plates and chow down while continuing to work. (Most kitchen staffers use only paper- and plasticware, as a broken plate or glass necessitates the nightmare scenario of having to dump all the food within splintering range.)

At a smaller restaurant like Jeffrey's, a staff meal is cooked up by the same person each night, in this case chef Fernando Silveira. This night he was using the tail tips and belly meat of fresh corvina, poaching it in a bouillabaisselike broth of saffron, white wine, carrots, and leeks, and serving it with rice or mashed potatoes, both ubiquitous in kitchens. If Fernando puts extra effort into the crew's dinner, perhaps it's because this is one of the few restaurants where the chef and owners dine on the same food as everybody else. Patrick, a veteran waiter here, jokes that, "when the chef is in a good mood, we eat very well," then adds more seriously that owners Jeffrey Landsman and Kurt Schmidt are extremely generous regarding the staff's feeding, to the point that if someone is dissatisfied with the menu du jour, something else gets prepared for them -- including a meatless meal each night for a vegetarian waiter. The worst staff meals Patrick ever encountered in South Florida were in a prestigious French restaurant, "where they only fed us things they got free from purveyors, like chicken wings." The best? "The Country Store, which allowed us to choose whatever we wanted from the menu." (The Country Store no longer is in business.)

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