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.”
“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.
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.”