Some of the most memorable food at the country's best restaurants never makes it out to the customers. Instead, it's consumed by the employees, at the staff meal. At Chicago's oh-so-Italian Spiaggia, the dishwasher prepares fried chicken for the waiters, busboys and line cooks. At Star Canyon in Dallas, the cleanup squad shares homemade tortillas and refried beans with the rest of the crew. At Alan Wong's in Hawaii, Wong's mother frequently serves Japanese comfort foods, like chicken with soy, seaweed and eggs. And at Patina in Los Angeles, the lobster purveyor occasionally takes a turn at the stove.
Staff meals can take many forms, from simple one-pot dishes to elaborate buffets. But few staff meals are as generous as those laid out, three times a day, at The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, a destination favored by Al Gore, Alan Greenspan, Paul Newman and Tom Wolfe. At around four o'clock in the afternoon, the staff gathers for a half hour of conversation and sustenance. Their rendezvous--outside the restaurant kitchen, just 20 steps from the theatrical, English manor-style inn--is another kitchen, with knotty-pine walls and linoleum floors, in a building of executive offices dubbed the White House, even though it's painted yellow.
Informality reigns at staff meals, where up to 40 cooks, managers and servers might show up for dinner. The napkins are paper, not linen, and the food is served family-style. The kitchen crew takes turns preparing simple dishes, such as fettuccine Alfredo and grilled marinated flank steak with ginger and garlic (although the cooks have learned to tone down their use of garlic--a hazard for waiters in particular). Sometimes glamorous leftovers appear: Tuna tartare might be used for tuna burgers.
These staff get-togethers "are like a little party, with lots of gossip," says Patrick O'Connell, the executive chef and coproprietor, who joins in about three times a week. There's also serious food conversation: What's a tangelo? Is spelt gluten-free? Scott Little, the general manager, explains, "It's our job to know more than our guests."
So the staff meal has its practical side, plus "it prevents everyone from noshing and nibbling on the job," O'Connell says. It also presents an opportunity to try the many product samples--say, beef cheeks or ostrich--that find their way to this celebrated address. And it lets the cooks audition a dish that's not quite ready for prime time. A lemon vinaigrette, for instance, that had been whipped up for a staff meal made its debut in the dining room as part of a chilled lobster dish--only after it had been augmented with caviar.
But O'Connell says his staff invariably prefers the homey version to the haute: "I don't think anyone would eat caviar if we put it out."
Though chef Patrick O'Connell does not serve alcohol during staff meals (his lemonade is wonderful), he did suggest wine pairings for the recipes in our story.
Tom Sietsema is a food reporter at The Washington Post.