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.)

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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