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.