Well Fed: The Importance of Staff Meals

| December 15, 2011 | 3 Comments
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staff meals
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.”

But it doesn’t always work out seamlessly. Derivi-Castellanos will often find herself making a special trip to her local co-op to pick up ingredients for the nightly meal. She’ll often end up grabbing some pre-made salads and raw ingredients—making a concerted effort to keep the meal simple but interesting. And affordable. Most of all, “it’s important to me to cater to who’s on our staff that evening,” she says.

The key is really to find “a balance between the time you have and the quality of food that’s important to you and the variation you’re going to need,” Kory says. When boyfriend Jesse Clark—who often prepares the meals—needs to focus more on his work, a member of the INNA kitchen will step up to maintain the sandwich station they’ve been doing or chip in with other seasonal ideas. The ultimate goal: “standard home-cooked high quality square meals.”

“Staff meals have taught me how eating well during the work day really makes a huge difference — for our energy, moral, and good mood all around. Also, feeding the staff is a chance for me to show my respect and appreciation for all their hard work and dedication,” Kory says. So while Chez Panisse, Three Babes Bakeshop and INNA Jam all approach their meals differently, they’re all making a conscious important decision. They’re making a statement about the kind of business they want to run and the small things they can do throughout the day not just to feed their staff, but also to nourish. Gracefully.

Inna Jam Skillet Cake
Inna Jam Skillet Cake. Photo: Dafna Kory

Jesse’s INNA Jam Kitchen Skillet Cake
This skillet cake is made year-round in the INNA kitchen, rotating whatever fruit is in season at the time, from stone fruit to figs to plums to apples to berries. Buttermilk isn’t often on hand in the kitchen and yogurt works just as well—use whatever you have. The cake is simple to put together and showcases the best of the harvest. And, it’s nice to snack on throughout the day, too. Not just during staff meal.

Adapted from: Epicurious.com

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour

Serves: 8

Ingredients:
For topping
1/2 stick butter
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 pound or so of fresh, seasonal fruit- enough to cover the pan.
(Apricots, plums, figs are halved, apples are sliced, berries used whole)
Raw sliced almonds, optional

For cake
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk or yogurt

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Arrange the racks so that one is in the middle of the oven (for the cake) and another rack is below it. On the lower rack place a baking sheet to catch any drips from the cake.

2. Melt the butter in 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the butter, then turn off the heat (you don’t want all your sugar to be melted). Arrange as much fruit as you can fit, cut sides down, close together on top of the brown sugar. Sprinkle sliced almonds, if using.

3. Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl (if you’re a sifter, you can sift this. Using a fork works just fine).

4. Beat together the butter, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Beat in the eggs until mixture is creamy and doubled in volume, 2-3 more minutes. Reduce speed to low and add the flour mixture in 3 batches alternately with the yogurt, beginning and ending with flour mixture, and beat just until combined.

5. Pour the batter over the fruit and spread as evenly as you can. It might not look perfectly distributed right away, but don’t worry — it’ll sort itself out in the oven. In any case, it’s going to be the bottom of the cake. Bake the cake in the middle of oven until it’s top is dark golden brown and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. It’s hard to overcook this cake because of all the fruit juice that will bubble up- it’s really the golden color on top that will help you judge when it’s ready.

6. Let the cake cool in the pan for a bit to reduce the chance of molten juice/sugar running down the pan when you flip it. Place a large plate if you have one (I use a cutting board) over the skillet, using oven mitts firmly pressed the plate and skillet together, and flip the cake onto plate. Lift the skillet off the cake (knocking on it with a wooden spoon helps to release it). If any fruit stuck to bottom of the skillet just scrape it off and place it back on the cake. Cool to warm or room temperature. It’s good right away, but even better the next day.

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Category: baking and bakeries, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, restaurants, bars, cafes, san francisco

About the Author ()

Megan Gordon is originally from Eureka, CA although she's lived in numerous college towns around the country (another story altogether). A freelance food and travel writer, Megan has written for publications like Ready Made Magazine, The San Francisco Examiner, Edible SF and Edible Marin & Wine Country, Olive Oil Times and The San Francisco Bay Guardian. She writes regularly for Apartment Therapy's The Kitchn and maintains her own local food blog, A Sweet Spoonful. Yes, Megan even tweets @meganjanesf. In addition to writing and photographing food, Megan is the founder (and head baker) of Marge, a Bay Area baking company specializing in classic American pies and nostalgic desserts.
  • Stephanie Rosenbaum

    Wait, how can the Chez Panisse staff sit down to a staff meal at 8pm? Isn’t that smack in the middle of service? Are you sure it’s not 4 or 5pm–usually typical time for staff meal in my experience.

  • http://www.asweetspoonful.com Megan Gordon

    Stephanie: From my understanding, it is a time that’s convenient in the middle of the two seatings. This is for the restaurant, not the upstairs cafe. Hope that clears it up for you.

  • http://www.kqed.org Wendy Goodfriend

    I have enjoyed the experience of staff meals as a way of connecting with the kitchen team before getting slammed with service for the eve. The ritual definitely helped promote that sense of family — especially since you are working during regular dinner hours. Staff meals was also a way for the cooks to show off how creative they could be with leftovers.