There's a certain magic that happens in a professional kitchen when tickets roll in and food streams out. Orders are called, food is cooked and customers eat. There's ebb and flow, a je ne sais quoi about production, camaraderie, teamwork--whatever you call it, it isn't born over night.
Reality TV would have you think a kitchen is screaming match in which the best person, usually the head chef, wins--a command-or-be-commanded environment. But that's not always the case. Some kitchens, in fact most kitchens, operate like a family, and families eat.
Family meal isn't only something your mom puts together at the end of the day--behind the pass, family meal, a meal cooked by kitchen staff for kitchen staff, offers a chance to sit down and relax, build relationships with coworkers, and learn.
I first learned about family meal interviewing some old industry chefs in the desert. At the time, these guys had either given into the corporate lifestyle--a strict clock-in, clock-out regimen for their staff--or simply were too small to employ a strong program. It seemed a lost art.
Then I found out family meal was right under my nose. My boyfriend, who leads a kitchen in Seal Beach, not only grew within a family program but also offers it in his kitchen.
At 17, he had landed his first restaurant gig as a cook at a gastropub in New Jersey.
"Someone, every day, would make food for the kitchen," he said. "At 17, I liked that we got to take a break but ultimately, I learned, it was also an opportunity to make something and have 20 people with years of experience try it. There's nothing like having your boss try your food and give you feedback, especially when he tells you he likes it."
"Like what?" I asked.
1. Collaborate -- Rabbit Molé The dish: Rabbit mole made from leftovers following an 8-course meal. The team: four cooks, Triumph Brewing, New Jersey circa 2003.
His first time at crafting a meal for the kitchen family, my guy created a rabbit mole with three other chefs.
Utilizing leftover braised rabbit, leftover mole sauce and rice (on the regular menu), the cooks created a meal fit for 20 after a 14-hour workday.
"You're in an extra high-stress environment with generally under appreciated employees. We were able to sit down and be ourselves," he said. "It felt good after a long day and it made us all feel appreciated."
The meal also gave him an opportunity to work more intimately with a few coworkers on a project of their own, fostering creative collaboration.
2. Waste Not -- Beef Tenderloin Chain Stroganoff The dish: Beef tenderloin chain stroganoff made from waste products. The team: two sous chefs, Old Vine, Costa Mesa circa 2010.
A side product of family meal is that it utilizes food that otherwise would have been discarded.
For the stroganoff, he utilized the chain (the fatty, sinewy section of a beef tenderloin deemed unpleasant for consumer consumption, but useable for things like stews or roulades) paired with day-old pasta (which turns green but is still okay to consume) and fresh mushrooms (on the regular menu).
"There's also carrot peelings, ends of celery, stalks of leeks that would get thrown out that could be made into vegetable stock for soups or stews," he said. "There are lots of options depending on the kitchen."
Utilizing waste products for family also forces cooks and chefs to get creative in a very Chopped kind of way.
"For family meal, you're not getting nice cuts of meats. But it allows cooks to be resourceful with very little."
3. Creativity -- Citrus Braised Beef Cheeks The dish: Citrus braised beef cheeks from leftover daily special and multi-course menu. The team: one chef, Beachwood BBQ, Seal Beach circa early 2015.
Sometimes it takes one creative person to inspire many.
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This dish was made from leftover beef cheeks from a daily special and citrus from a salad off a holiday menu--both items from one-off events--and paired with mixed vegetables from the regular menu.
"Occasionally, the chef will make family meal, but generally cooks make family meal. For them, it's an opportunity to explore," he said. "There's nothing worse than being an aspiring chef and cooking someone else's menu and not being able to express yourself. Family meal is that vessel for expression, but it's also important for me because the higher up you get in the kitchen the less you're cooking. This let's my staff see that I'm not just a clipboard chef and that paperwork isn't all that I do. It also inspires my staff to be more creative."
For a while, his cooks were making really great home-style meals but they were dishes they've made over and over again.
"This dish my staff liked because it wasn't normal food they would cook at home," he said. "Mixing it up, gives them a new perspective, and those that go above and beyond are considered for daily specials and possibly the menu."