Did you know that many professional cooks have poor eating habits? We taste dishes over and over all day while we tweak and verify for consistency. We nibble at our mise-en-place: a few roasted pine nuts here, a few slices of prosciutto there. A plastic tasting spoon shoved in your face with a “Taste this and tell me what you think!” when you have no idea what you’re tasting.
After work, onion rings and chicken wings at a local watering hole, or frozen pizza at home just before bedtime. Servers graze on croutons and pickles, shaved parmesan, bar olives and orange wedges as they prep the stuff they use to garnish outgoing plates and drinks.
Efficient restaurants provide a free “family meal” before dinner service to keep staff happy and energized, and grazing to a minimum. Family meal can be anything from a completely composed affair with a salad, a pasta dish and garlic bread, to a series of “let’s-use-this-up” overstock that can make a disjointed meal but still satisfy.
Junior level cooks are often tasked with family meal duty. Of course, it can be annoying to stop what you’re doing (a prep task that’s contributing towards your station) and come up with something off the top of your head to feed the pack of hungry wolves that are your co-workers. But if you embrace the challenge, it can also be very rewarding.
Some people really get into that challenge. Some compete against one another on alternating shifts to make the best family meal. A tepid effort could be ridiculed, but will probably still be eaten. A truly great family meal will bring thanks and accolades that can warm the heart of the crustiest line cook.
Tacos with multiple toppings are a cheap and popular choice. Or maybe you just have eight pounds of surplus sweet potatoes, some leftover English peas, a random bag of frozen pearl onions, and 10 pounds of beef trimmings you can run through the grinder. Boom: sweet potato shepherd’s pie!
(Side note: a good dishwasher might avail him or herself of family meal, but they often get to order from the menu when other staff members aren’t allowed this luxury. It can be disconcerting for green staff members to see the dishwasher scarfing down that strip steak or plate of lamb chops, but they’ll soon realize the value of a competent, dependable dish person. I’ve known dishwashers who were secretly better compensated than some junior line cooks. But a good dishwasher is of the utmost value. I’d happily feed one steak and lobster all shift long if I know they’ll always show up, on time, sober and ready to work industriously all the way until shift-end.)
I’ve been making a few family meals lately at my new gig. I actually sit at night and plot what might be affordable and impress the most without having to shop excessively. There’s half a bag of arugula in the walk-in right now, I’ll think. And then we have that six pan of heirloom tomatoes that farmer brought us as a sample.
I’ll just pop by the grocery on my way in to work and get some canned artichokes and some box of on-sale pasta and see where that takes us. Certainly we have plenty of herbs and spices and house-made stock to help the process along. The big challenge is to cook it fast and set it out quickly, with utensils and plates and everything anyone might need to eat it within ten minutes and get back to work.
A confident cook with good time management skills can actually enjoy the dilemma one faces when tasked with family meal duty. And it had better be good, or you’re in for a lot of ribbing. But when you get it right, there’s no better feeling than hearing your compatriots say “This is really, really good. Thank you!” That’s what we’re all aiming for when we present family meal.
If you don’t work in a restaurant, I’ll bet you feel a little left out right now, don’t you? Don’t worry. You can do family meal challenges at home, too. Just choose things from your fridge and freezer without a prior plan and see what you can come up with. Keep staples like canned diced tomatoes and frozen shredded potatoes, dried pasta, rice and beans on hand. Always have onions and celery in the crisper drawer.
And don’t skimp on the cheese.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, and Marketplace @ Theater Square. She currently works at Fontleroy’s, soon to open at the corner of Grinstead and Bardstown.