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Gather Round the Table

Staff meals at North Bay restaurants offer camaraderie, experimentation—and delicious results

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"Sometimes the dishes take a long time—up to 40 minutes to prepare one fine dining dish—and it is timed throughout the night, and that comes into play," says Lancer. But even Michelin-starred servers enjoy the simple things; employees at Madrona Manor enjoy regular off-the-menu items like pizza and burgers and have, on occasion, ordered out for burritos during large catering events.

Server Michelle Hansen works the dining rooms of not one but three West County restaurants, where she is offered a wide variety of plates for family meals.

"At Hi-Five, Eugene [Birdsall] is constantly experimenting and making all of these incredible dishes, and he just throws one up on the window for us, which is really great," she says of the Guerneville restaurant. "Sometimes it's octopus or shishito peppers or whatever he buys fresh that morning. He isn't even really buying it to put on the menu; he just likes to cook and wants to share it all.

"Last night, I had pozole at my other job at [Sebastopol's] French Garden," she continues, "and it was to die for. Sometimes they just make a big pot of it and share it with everyone." Often, chefs want to put all of their ingredients to use, regardless of whether or not they're called for in the menu.

"This one time after a shift, Brandon [Guenther] was cooking something and he had bone marrow and told me I needed to try it," says Sara Gray of the chef at Rocker Oysterfeller's in Valley Ford. "The majority of my life I had been a vegetarian and I didn't think I could eat it, but it was one of the best things, and I just looked at him and said, 'Are you kidding me? This is insane. I could eat this every night!' And he said, 'Well, you can't because you'd probably have a heart attack and die,' and we just laughed and kept eating. It was delicious."

"Aside from bone marrow with capers, red onion and Dijon mustard, we run a Mexican restaurant after hours," says Guenther. "We have done tortas ahogadas—classic pork carnitas sandwiches from Jalisco, and enfrijoladas, which are beans folded up on a lightly fried tortilla with spicy bean sauce and Cotija cheese." Another specialty dinner that Guenther recently created for his staff consisted of pit-roasted bull head with beer and local mirepoix for tacos de cabeza.

TAKING A BREATHER Like many other North Bay chefs, Mark Miller and Sean Kelly at Underwood work spontaneously to feed their staff. - NADAV SOROKER
  • Nadav Soroker
  • TAKING A BREATHER Like many other North Bay chefs, Mark Miller and Sean Kelly at Underwood work spontaneously to feed their staff.

Graton's Underwood Bistro is also known for bringing an international flair to its family meals. Chef Mark Miller visits Thailand as often as twice a year, and his staff has picked up on his Thai specialties.

"The other night, [sous chef] Sean Kelly made this really great pork curry with sticky rice, and I swear to God, it tasted like I was in an alleyway in Bangkok eating at some little stand. It was so delicious. All of the flavors were spot on," says Malicki, who often sits in on family meals with girlfriend Fina Wheeler, a longtime server at Underwood.

"I remember Amy Tan wrote a book about this woman who comes to America from China and works at a Chinese restaurant in the suburbs. She was working there for six months before she ever knew it was a Chinese restaurant. The food was like, what the hell is this? It's the opposite thing with Mark Miller's food. If you were blindfolded and didn't know where you were and you were eating his food, you'd think you were in Thailand."

As far as sticking with a theme or set menu for Underwood's family meals, Miller and sous chef Sean Kelly work spontaneously with local seasonal ingredients to feed their staff, focusing on Thai and Vietnamese dishes.

"It varies," says Miller. "We can make a quick stir fry or curry or fried rice dishes. We stay creative, so they're fed well and always happy."

"Staff meals for me are a chance to experiment, so I never necessarily know what it's going to be until about 9:30 on a Friday night," says Sean Kelly with a laugh. "Like last night, I made ceviche with pineapple. I had never put pineapple in it before and I thought, 'Hey, that sounds delicious!' The staff is usually pretty enthusiastic about the meals, and I really appreciate them trying these new things."

"And I think that as long as you like what you're doing," he adds, "it's always going to be delicious, one way or another."

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