Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 3: Baby cooks the Family Meal
The importance of staff food
As far as I could tell, there were two rules you needed to follow when it came to making staff food.
First, it needed to be on time. A minute late and the looks front of house staff gave the responsible cook were just vicious.
I mean really horrible.
Secondly, whoever was making the staff food couldn’t let themselves be seen to be putting much effort into it.
The staff food job, which was always a single person’s responsibility on rotation, needed to fit in seamlessly with the endless raft of “real” jobs they also had to do that day.
Just because you were “on staff” didn’t give you an excuse to slack on your set up, “mise en place”, or running your section properly come service.
This was certainly the case where I got my first cooking job at what I have so far in this newsletter anonymously called “The Restaurant”. And it was pretty much the case for every other restaurant I worked in thereafter.
The goal for the cook on staff food was for 3:59pm to come along and for the service pass to be filled with beautiful food as though it had been put together with a click of their fingers.
What some of the cooks “on staff” could achieve, all while doing a job that seemed to occupy every second of their existence, was frequently breathtaking to me.
During my first weeks as a chef I watched in a fever of envy as the head chef and sous chefs took us all, from 4pm to 4:29pm, on a global trip around their culinary loves and experiences.
Frederico once made steamed bao and roasted pork belly with (scratch-made) plum sauce. And that’s not to mention the atomically sliced cucumber and spring onions he prepared.
Fred would often really hammer home how “no big deal” his efforts were by not even eating any of it himself, preferring instead to spend his 29 lunch minutes scrolling Instagram and showing off various obscene memes he had found.
The head chef “Hamlet” leant more heavily into technically simple, but no less delicious, staff meals. With the same ease as I might open a can of beans, he once casually threw together the most achingly perfect fish and chips I’d ever eaten.
The crispy batter was both satisfyingly thick yet meltingly tender. A savoury, fatty coating as impactful, yet simultaneously fleeting, as a full-scale insult whispered under the breath of your enemy. A dance between opposing forces within the confines of a tartare sauce-drenched plate.
And he managed to create this experience for us while butchering a 4-foot deer carcass on an adjacent work bench.
It was clear to me these chefs I’d found myself working with were conduits of knowledge and experience that I could yet barely fathom. Yes, it must have taken them years to gain this experience, no question. But this was only part of the equation.
Eating what they created seemed to give an insight into the experience of the many people they had worked with and learnt from as well. In as much, these chefs were not just good or fast or well-practiced. They were walking vectors of a vast repository of knowledge that had travelled through generation after generation of great chef. Knowledge that, through hard work, had become second nature to them and at their willing disposal.
Having now cooked and eaten there, I can confidently say the food served to guests at “The Restaurant” was universally delicious. The menu seemed to occupy a magical space capable of satisfying the likes of A.A. Gill as much as your grandmother.
But I’m still convinced the food these chefs offered at staff meal was the purest expression of their cooking soul, unhindered by considerations of fashion, trend or reputation. The other term for staff food, more loaded perhaps and a bit on the nose for my tastes, is the “family meal”. But as cheesy as it sounds, this was food made for families, not critics.
Nor could anyone mistake the silence the restaurant frequently fell under once everyone was seated with loaded plates.
It was the silence that only truly delicious food, prepared with near endless love and experience can effect.
When I was first offered the responsibility of cooking staff food, I most certainly did not have access to this experience.
What I did have was a lifetime of watching Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver to draw on and the same handful of dishes I’d cooked for my mother and, very occasionally, friends over the years.
Frederico was the one who first asked me if I wanted to make staff food the first time. He angled it as a step up, the taking on of extra duties. Back then, I took it as a vote of confidence, a step in the right direction. I still wasn’t allowed to take part in service at this point, but a promotion to staff food was a promotion all the same.
Looking back of course I can see how thick Fred was laying it on at the time. For all his talk of “responsibility” and my “being ready for this”, really it must’ve just been a relief to have the prep boy in the basement kitchen finally take a time-consuming job off his hands every so often.
But at the time I didn’t think this. I was just excited. I was on my way up. And, being as much of a loser then as I still am today, I Googled “staff food” for some recipes for inspiration. What I found was inspiration more than I could have hoped for.
I stumbled on a quote about staff food from a book by a guy I hadn’t heard of then called Thomas Keller. He ran some restaurant called The French Laundry in America and by all accounts was some kind of big deal.
About staff food, he wrote:
“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.
This was it. It was like he was talking directly to me.
I was a few months in to my stage, still blighted by constant cut fingers, blue plasters and a sense I was still far too slow to keep up with anything or anyone. Here, by way of a random Google search, was the secret to where I could begin. Staff food. I would make the greatest, most delicious staff meals. It would only be the first step, but, I reassured myself, what is any journey other than a multitude of first steps?
And, yes, I ignored the “maybe” part altogether.
In the end it was just a few hundred grams of potato that ended up spelling ruin to my first family meal.
The idea had been to impress everyone with a bold and confident dish that, just as the other cooks managed every day, I would prepare with the slightest of effort.
I had decided to make gnocchi. A simple but deeply satisfying and, importantly, filling lunch. I would serve it with browned butter, crispy fried sage leaves, and a side salad to round things off oh so elegantly.
It all went tits up the moment I started folding the lurid orange sweet potato into my beautiful, white gnocchi dough. I had been forced to do this having realised I’d ordered too few regular potatoes to make enough of the delicate potato dumplings to feed everyone. I needed to bulk it up and the addition of a few leftover sweet potatoes from one of Fred’s recent staff food triumphs was me thinking on my feet.
It was at this moment I learnt sweet potatoes must have a gallon extra water per gram in them than my regular floury potatoes. And the more I mixed, the more my proud, firm gnocchi dough became worrying flaccid.
Moments later, 4pm edging ever closer, I attempted to poach it by the spoonful in gently simmering water.
They disintegrated away just as irretrievably as any dreams I might have had of impressing the rest of the staff that day.
I quickly boiled some spaghetti and, as everyone tucked into their plate of buttered pasta that day, the restaurant was alive with undisturbed conversation.