Behind the scenes at restaurants, who can resist the romance of silver clinking against glass, of ceramic plates coming together of the heat sizzling and rising up around chefs in a kitchen? The popularity of programs like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations is a testament to kitchen camaraderie, showing us what the act of sharing food, family-style, consists of: hearty loaves of bread on outdoor tables with jugs of wine and low-hanging olive branches catching the last rays of sun as it dips beyond the Tuscan hills. Or something like that.
Along with the instant gratification of tips, staff meals are an added perk of employment in the restaurant industry. Besides filling hungry bellies, these meals provide opportunities for a team to come together like a big, happy, hard-working (and, let's face it, sometimes dysfunctional) extended family. Chefs often use the meals to experiment with leftovers, audition potential menu items and provide waiters with knowledge about what, exactly, they are serving.
"Staff meal has nuances of function, but at its core, it is the time for the health of a staff to develop," writes Sonoma County–bred author Marissa Guggiana in her 2011 book Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants. "Like dinner for many families, it is the only time that everyone is together in an unstructured way."
Jordan Lancer, who as a server at Healdsburg's Madrona Manor enjoyed many staff meals from the Michelin and Zagat-rated kitchen, echoes the sentiment. "A meal is something to level the playing ground," he says. "If you all get together, it is a time where you have a chance to laugh about something and have a bonding moment. More than anything, it's an occasion to bond about that night's service."
Mark Malicki, chef at Casino in Bodega, agrees. Though Malicki's preference is to enjoy a family meal before a dinner shift, he stresses the importance of the staff coming together.
"That camaraderie seems to come into play more at the end of the evening. If you're sitting down and you're all eating, you review the night and talk about customers, and that is kind of fun," he says. "But whatever time it is, it's just great sitting down with everyone, laughing and talking."
But what about the meal itself, you ask? Do waitstaffs get the five-star dining experience they're required to offer their guests, or are they sent out back with a hodgepodge of leftovers like Little Orphan Annie?
Though some servers share stories of mean and withholding chefs who'd often be so frazzled after a long shift that they'd offer nothing more than a plate of old, souring mussels and cold rice or a wilted caesar salad to their servers, word on the street is that in the North Bay, waitstaffs have full and satisfied bellies.
"We get lots of barbecue, lots of fried chicken, and it's pretty delicious," says Navid Manoochehri of Yountville's Ad Hoc. "But one of the best things I've ever had was lobster fried rice."
Manoochehri adds that Ad Hoc—featured in Come In, We're Closed, yet another book about staff meals—has its own garden, and the family meals often consist of fresh, seasonal produce with lots of tomatoes, stone fruit and green salads.
"We also usually make a big family meal for people's last day at work. Those are usually very fun and pretty epic endeavors, lots of food, lots of drink," says Manoochehri. "Sometimes there are dance parties, too."
Madrona Manor chef Jesse Mallgren says that because the restaurant has such a specific menu focusing on small dishes, there isn't a lot of room for experimentation with family meals, and, as with Ad Hoc, he often relies on what he finds in the garden that day.
"For a while, we went on a kick of making ramen. It was something that we're interested in, but it's not something we necessarily have on the menu," he says. "One dish that we make that people really like is called jook, or congee, which is a rice porridge from Asia. We make that a lot. It's pretty filling and we can put whatever you want in it. Traditionally, it's made from leftover rice, and it can be made a little spicy, usually with cabbage and a little meat. It's nice to put a lot of fresh vegetables in it, and if you're low on meat, you can use eggs. It's pretty versatile."