There is no official record of the first “family meal”. We only know that it has been a tradition for hundreds of years, as long as restaurants have been an established institution—and probably even before.
In today’s formalized sense, it’s when the front of house and back of house can come together to fuel themselves before service. Along the way, they become family.
Thomas Keller notes that “the staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with bi-products. But the message underlying that was: can you be passionate about cooking at this level? Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity…then someday, you’ll be a great chef. Maybe.”
Restaurants across the country have taken this on as a challenge. And they rise to it daily. Here’s what I learned from chatting with several of them.
Family meal is the best opportunity for creative expression.
As a rule, Family Meal is primarily based on what the kitchen can create out of leftovers and scraps. This is a tribute to “no waste” efforts in kitchens and speaks to Chef Keller’s fundamentals of bi-products, passion, and creativity.
For the staff at Yugen, family meal is a unique opportunity for different cooks to shine in the kitchen by creating what they personally love and want to share with their coworkers, based on the accessible ingredients.
Over at Compass Rose—which just celebrated it’s five-year anniversary—”Everything is kept really fresh and made not long before service. Sometimes it is a great way to get rid of leftovers…but we let the cooks really show their personalities and play around for our family meals.”
For many restaurants, family meal is an important opportunity to think outside their normal menu and celebrate the different cultures that represent a diverse staff.
“When [staff] decide to bring in ingredients from their local markets, it’s always a treat for us to take care of that and work together to create a meal,” explains Chef Johanna Hellrigl of Doi Moi, which specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine. “I’ve now learned how to make pupusas and chilaquiles and I can’t wait to make them again!”
Executive Chef Carlos Cruz at The Promontory feel the same way. “Some of our most memorable meals are those in which our staffers use their own family recipes, giving us some insight into their upbringing.”
Every restaurant approaches the planning of family meal differently.
For the most part, family meals are decided upon spontaneously. Restaurants discuss family meal either the night before or simply the day of. “Unless we want to do something different or we have too much leftover of something, then we’ll plan around what we have to make the most of our ingredients,” says Chef Claudio Foschi of America Eats Tavern.
For some restaurants, the fun lies in the spontaneity.
“Part of being a cook is that you need to be able to be creative with the moment and make something delicious out of what is presented in front of you,” describes Chef Hellrigl. “So, although you are planned on the schedule to make a family meal—and what time we’ll be serving it—the actual meal served is a creative expression of what that team member decided to do with those ingredients.”
Other restaurants prefer to take a more structured road to planning family meals.
“We have a blank calendar that we hang up at the start of every month and we use that as a tool for us to plan our week and for people to take the initiative to pick a day that they want to make staff meal,” explains Chef Brianna Meyers of Michelin-starred Boka. “We also talk about what everybody is making the night before so everyone is on the same page and has a clear plan.”
Over at Coconut Club, Washington D.C.’s latest hit sensation, planning matters to Chef/Owner Adam Greenberg. “We generally plan the day or two before, in case we want to marinate overnight or braise something. Generally speaking though…it’s important to plan for it like anything you prep. If it’s a last-minute thing, it won’t have the same love and the staff will know it.”
Around the holidays, family meal naturally has more structure.
“Some family meals are planned far in advance, for example, around holidays like Thanksgiving (in which the team enjoys a full Thanksgiving meal that is also served at the restaurant) while the average meal is planned a day in advance by the team in the kitchen,” the team at The Smith clarifies. “Meals are planned as a team, with input from the staff. Dietary restrictions are taken into consideration, with offerings for vegetarian and special diets (like gluten-free) available each night. We try to keep all of the meals healthy to energize our staff for a busy shift.”
Ultimately, it seems that family meals depend upon three main factors—product availability, staff requests, and dietary restrictions.
Family meal is always an all-in effort.
Imagine prepping for a full service while also prepping an entirely different meal for an almost equally large number of people. That’s how family meal works; it is always prepped at the same time that prep is happening for a particular service. If a restaurant does more than one service there is always more than one family meal.
Across the board, staff always comes together to eat before service officially starts. But when it comes to who prepares the meals, there’s less of a consensus.
The Smith serves family meal four times a day—breakfast, lunch, mid-day, and late night. Given the breadth of the offering, this requires help from the entire team. “Generally, our production chefs oversee the process with help from our line cooks. But everyone pitches in to help.”
Over at The Promontory, family meal tasks are assigned by station. “Our garde manger takes care of salads. Fish station takes care of proteins. Hearth station takes care of the vegetables.”
At Boka, it’s true a group effort.”Family meal is prepared during our general prep time and everybody plays a role [to] bring it together. Typically, our meat roast handles the protein aspect of the meal. The starch, vegetable, and salad are distributed throughout the rest of the staff to prepare,” enumerates Chef Meyers.
Other times, the schedule simply rotates. “Sometimes you are with a chef to make your meal. Sometimes you are partnered together with another teammate so you can create something together,” shares Chef Hellrigl.
Yugen does something different altogether by occasionally having front of house staff step into the kitchen and take responsibility for family meal. General Manager Morgan Olszewski says, “It’s cool to have the opportunity everyone in a while to provide staff meal for the team. It gives back of house a break and also allows us to show how thankful we are for all that they do.”
For restaurant teams, family meal is the most important meal of the day.
“As culinary professionals, we often neglect ourselves at the expense of our customers,” divulges Chef/Partner Devon Quinn of Eden. “It is very common to be so busy that one may forget to eat. It seems crazy, working with food all day, that we would ever miss a meal but we often do.”
Aside from being a way to fuel before work, family meal is essential to the team’s morale.
According to The Promontory, “being able to feed our employees is essential to the overall success of our restaurant and the happiness of our staff.”
Chef Greenberg says it best: “It’s meant to be fulfilling and evoke some sort of emotion. Family meal is one of those things I’ve seen that can have a huge impact on staff happiness. You can’t have a miserable staff member go to a table and act happy. I’ve never seen someone be that good of an actor.”
It’s not all about leftovers; family meal can be downright grand.
If you ask restaurants to describe their most memorable family meals, the results are, in fact, drool-worthy. And, yes, sometimes if the meal is fabulous enough, it does make it onto the restaurant’s actual menu.
For Eden, their most recent family meal was centered around a hearty bowl of Ribolita—a soup of Tuscan kale, bread, and vegetables. The soup was accompanied by a Taco Bell inspired salad with a smoked jalapeño ranch, grilled winter vegetables with charred red pepper hollandaise, and kimchi fried rice with shrimp and pork belly.
At Boka, the most memorable family meals involve the entire team working together to break down a whole pig. “The family meals that come from that are always gratifying and different. We have made porchetta, spicy Italian sausage, and ham sandwiches all as a team. It’s amazing to see what everybody can come up with when they’re excited about something.”
And Coconut Club keeps in mind that, sometimes, simplicity is best. “On cold days, chicken soup warms the soul…as will chocolate chip cookies before a Saturday night shift! It’s all about the thoughtfulness of the meal to show your staff you care.”
It does bear mentioning that sometimes the best meals are those that you don’t have to make. While some restaurants frown on ordering food from other establishments (see Gabrielle Hamilton’s 2013 essay on family meal for The New Yorker), others embrace it as a form of mutual respect and support. When Coconut Club first opened, neighboring restaurants sent large spreads to welcome the team to the area.
“It shows the community cares and by taking family meal off our plate that day, it helps take away prep for that day. It’s the thought that counts and shows us that level of support we have for each other,” explains Chef Greenberg.
When the Doi Moi team worked a huge event, family meal wasn’t going to be possible in the “traditional” sense, so Chef Hellrigl “went over to our neighbors at Shake Shack and they helped get everyone fed.”
It’s a sense of teamwork and solidarity that extends outside the four walls of a specific restaurant and into the industry as a whole. It’s community.
Family meal is a symbol of camaraderie and genuine appreciation for the entire team.
“Family meal plays a huge role in building community throughout our team. It’s the most important meal of the day and it’s a time for everybody to enjoy what we have made and be proud.” – Chef Meyers, Boka
“Family meal is one of several things that helps to build camaraderie in the kitchen. We often eat while standing and sometimes there may only be five minutes or so to consume our meal but it has a way of bringing us together.” – Sous Chef Bryan Collante, Eden
“It’s a really fun time to spend with each other and have the opportunity to be with front and back of house at once, since that isn’t always the easiest during service.” – Manager Olszewski, Yugen
“It’s what being a team means to us. Everyone is responsible for saying thank you to those who took the time to create family meal, just like you would if your family member was making a meal.” – Chef Hellrigl, Doi Moi