Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home
Danny Meyer’s restaurants are among the most acclaimed and beloved in the nation: Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, The Modern, and more — winners of an unprecedented number of James Beard Awards for outstanding food and hospitality. Family Table takes you behind the scenes of these restaurants to share the food that the chefs make for one another before they cook for you.
Each day, before the lunch and dinner services, the staff sits down to a “family meal.” It is simple, often improvised, but special enough to please the chefs’ discerning palates. Now, for the first time, the restaurants’ culinary director, Michael Romano (coauthor of the award-winning Union Square Cafe Cookbook), collects and refines for the home cook his favorite in-house dishes, served alongside Karen Stabiner’s stories about the restaurants’ often-unsung heroes and about how this imaginative array of dishes came to be. Their collaboration celebrates food, the family itself, and the restaurants’ rich backstage life.
Cooks&Books&Recipes Featured Cook Sheri, on Family Table:
There are a number of cookbooks out there that are focused on the traditional restaurant family meal. Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home, by Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner, is the latest. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a restaurant staff meal: what do professional cooks make for each other when released from the boundaries of the menu?
The family meal is served to both the front-of-house and the back-of-house staff. It is consumed before service. Restaurant work is physically grueling, and a pre-service helping of protein and carbs helps alleviate some of the exhaustion that sets in during service. But the meal doesn’t simply serve as fuel for the staff. It bonds the employees together, it’s a form of taking care of one another. The family meal is important, and it can’t be just an afterthought.
Part of the charm of Family Table is the head notes — background on the cooks who make the meals and on the history behind the food. This is a book of beautiful, delicious recipes, but I devoured the stories as well. The recipes vary widely in tone and cuisine. Latin and Asian cuisines are most prevalent but don’t dominate. There’s an Alsatian dish for roasted potatoes with fromage blanc and bacon that makes me hungry just to think about it. The lentil salad with summer squash and dried cherries sounds like the perfect way to use up the bounty of my CSA — I imagine it makes a perfect dish for a staff meal as well. The book also includes favorites from the restaurant menus.
I don’t have a lot of experience working in restaurants. In fact, I’ve worked in only one, for my culinary school externship. It’s a well-regarded restaurant in San Francisco — a very supportive, civilized workplace that puts out some of the most unique and exciting food in the city. I recently completed my externship, so my memories of staff meals are fresh in my mind. And they’re not like anything I had previously imagined.
At the restaurant where I worked, the staff meal was usually made by one of the sous chefs or by one of the more senior line cooks. There was always some sort of salad, a protein, and carbs. Chicken-and-rice is a popular choice, but since I’m allergic to rice, the cooks/chefs kindly avoided rice products for most of my shifts. We ate a lot of noodles. Pasta and hearty soups were also popular. There was a shelf in the walk-in with a bunch of containers labeled “staff.” Anytime there were leftovers, or something that wasn’t suitable for service, it got designated to staff meals. Cheap, nutritious, quick — that’s the name of the game. The protein was usually left over from the previous night’s service: chicken, pork, sausage. It was always good and sometimes good enough that I went back for seconds. Only once in my two months there (working four days a week) did the chef make the staff meal, and it was one of my favorites: plump cannellini beans in a flavorful, spicy broth with greens. He referred to this as his father’s food, and that’s probably the best way to describe a staff meal. It’s the food you grew up with, the food your parents made. Comforting, not fancy.
I made the staff meal on my last day. It was scary: these were people I had worked alongside for many months, but I had never really cooked for them. Sure, I cooked at the restaurant, but that was the restaurant’s food. And more often than not, I was prepping a part of a dish or assembling already cooked items into a finished dish. For the staff meal, I decided to make something I had grown up with: a casserole my mom used to make. Lowbrow, but always delicious, it’s the one dish in my life that I’ve cooked more than anything else — layers of pasta, seasoned meat, sour cream, and cheese, all baked until gooey and melty. Destined to be a hit.
In Family Table, Michael Romano describes how he insists that the entire staff sit down together for the meal, both front-of-house and back-of-house. At the restaurant where I worked, we mostly ate standing up, shoveling the food into our mouths. Sometimes I didn’t have any time, so I’d dish up some of the food and set it aside until I could eat after service started (I wasn’t always working on the line). I rarely took more than five minutes to eat. Once I spotted one of the cooks in the alley behind the restaurant, stealing away a few quiet moments — standing up, eating quickly and efficiently.
It is through this lens that I hungrily read every page of Family Table. Some of the dishes are right along the lines of what I experienced. Some seem a little contrived and unrealistic (beignets that need to be started the day before?), but then this isn’t a cookbook that represents what the staff eat every day. Instead, it’s a compendium of their favorites: the dishes they want to eat again and again, the ones that taste great and nourish them before service. The cookbook inspires me too. What if I had to feed a number of people, and feed them well, within a couple of hours? Could I do it? Family Table makes me confident that yes, I could.