What's Cooking for the Kitchen

Staff meals

Maybe it would still be around if it did like most dining establishments and fed its personnel lots of chicken. It's a reasonably priced entrée, appeals to a wider range of workers than meat or fish, there are always a flock's worth in any restaurant walk-in, and they don't have a long shelf life so they've got to be moved out one way or another. Chef/owner Jan Jorgensen of 2 Chefs kids, "The guys here could write a book called 101 Ways to Cook Chicken." His crew comes in early every Saturday and sits together for their weekly staff luncheon. There is no such get-together the rest of the week, but hungry cooks cook up ways to feed themselves. Conscious of that, Jan tells them to take whatever they'd like, trusting they'll do so in moderation. "If they want red meat, they'll make sure to take an end cut. The more you allow them to eat, the less they'll take."

And vice versa. During my culinary career I became adept at finding waiters who would supply me with a steady flow of espressos in exchange for small food treats dealt to them under the table. Espressos and cappuccinos are prized commodities among restaurant workers; it was regular coffee or none at each of the restaurants I spoke with. Klime Kovaceski of Crystal Café supplies the arithmetic: "Someone who likes espressos can easily drink three in one shift. Say you've got ten employees, and they drink three apiece, at a cost to the restaurateur of 40 cents each. That comes to $12 a day, $72 a week, $3744 a year -- for a small place like mine. Imagine what it would cost China Grill with all their employees?" Here's where Bice's workers have it good: all the Solo cups of café cubanos they want from the cafeteria espresso machine.

Macedonian native Kovaceski dishes out Eastern European stews like chicken paprikash and veal goulash for his squad, the latter a means of using up trimmings left after breaking down racks of veal into chops. Klime believes, "By being generous you give workers a sense of hominess and make them feel as though they belong."

Executive chefs rarely take part in the togetherness. Some, like the chef at Le Festival, dine alone after service. Klime eats beforehand at his office desk, often having his sous chef prepare some new dish or special they've been working on. Cindy Hutson also eats before work, though she "might have a protein shake at lunch, and at the end of the night, maybe I'll throw together a salad." Jan Jorgensen is drawn to "something not too heavy, like seafood salad."

Many workers like to eat by themselves as well, either before or after the shift. This is especially true of prep cooks and dishwashers, who tend to dine by their own clocks and from their own ethnic cookbooks. Matter of fact, sometimes the most interesting chow going down in a kitchen is prepared by those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy: An Argentine will make empanadas from scratch, a Cuban might whip together ropa vieja, and so on.

Dissatisfaction doesn't seem to be the case very often. The cooks and waiters interviewed offered consistently positive, if not always stellar reviews of their on-the-job dinners. But when asked if they'd prefer the cuisine being served to their customers, the unanimous response: Dumb question!

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