Even Through COVID, Restaurant Family Meal Must Go On
Before the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and devastated the restaurant industry, the crew at Virtue restaurant, in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, shared staff meal in the same corner of the dining room every day. The ritual was so ingrained in the house culture that, on weekends, chef-owner Erick Williams or a member of the management team would ask long-lingering brunch patrons to leave, so employees could dine before dinner service without the inhibitions that might be activated by prying eyes.
"We don't want our downtime to be restrained," says Williams.
In the dining room, during service, Virtue exclusively plays soul music by Black artists, which Williams intends to emphasize the creativity flowing through and from the African diaspora, and reclaiming something which often has been appropriated.
But during staff meal, anything goes, from Jay-Z to J.Lo, and a group that exhibits an elegant reserve while tending to guests takes full advantage of the freedom that essentially being guests in their own place of employment invites, and they cut loose—laughing, clapping, and stomping their feet.
And the food at Virtue's staff meal rivaled meals enjoyed by guests. Sunday brunch might have been pancakes with bacon and house-made sausage. During the week, Williams and chef de cuisine Damarr Brown usually followed the tried-and-true protein-starch-gravy-vegetable formula, adding variety by, say, making a curry sauce for the gravy. Sometimes they'd change it up with tacos, always popular with the team, or by ordering in chili dogs on especially busy days. Occasionally, kitchen leadership would select a staff-meal item based on a cook's desire to learn, like the time they served trout, which provided one employee a chance to improve his de-boning skills.
For the past COVID-addled year, Virtue, like many functioning restaurants, has continued to serve staff meal. But just as safety protocols have kept families apart, they have obliterated core aspects of a longstanding tradition that embodies much of what draws many who love the restaurant industry to its ranks.
It hasn't always been thus. Historically speaking, family meals worth looking forward to, or even memorializing between book covers, are relatively new. For generations, a team dinner before service was far from de rigueur. When provided, it might be so cheap and thoughtless that some kitchen workers opted for a slice of utility pizza or a candy bar, scarfed down during a quick stroll around the block. Like much about contemporary American restaurant customs, the modern-day family meal that started to materialize in the 1970s and had become the norm by the 1990s, largely was a response and a rebuke to the shortcomings of those sometimes brutal, old-school kitchens.
David Waltuck, who with his wife and former business partner Karen Waltuck, owned and operated the landmark restaurant Chanterelle in lower Manhattan from 1979 to 2008, was the first American chef to commemorate the tradition and recipes of staff meal in a mainstream book from a major publisher, Staff Meals from Chanterelle (Workman, 2000), co-authored with Melicia Phillips.
Waltuck recalls the inequities, disappointments, and just plain absence of an employer-provided meal in myriad kitchen jobs early in his career in New York City and upstate New York. If lunch or dinner was provided, it was often at the end of a shift, rather than as a pre-service fuel-up. Sometimes it underscored a class divide, as at Chelsea's Empire Diner, where cooks prepared themselves anything they wanted, but servers were limited to a narrow cross-section of inexpensive menu items. At the bistro Le Petit Ferme, staff were welcome to help themselves to daily specials—such as lamb stew—after they had been gurgling over a low flame for hours, the coagulated liquid and the meat's petrified edges no longer suitable for paying guests. (Chicago-area legend has it that one long-closed restaurant routinely served its team the raft from consommé—hey, it's a protein!)
There were exceptions, like The Box Tree restaurant in Purdys, New York, where Austrian-born chef Rudolf "Rudi" Grasner prepared the team a proper meal, and cooks and waiters sat together, even pouring themselves a glass of wine if they fancied it. Waltuck was inspired by the camaraderie, even between front- and back-of-house.
"When we opened Chanterelle, we wanted it to be a friendly, everybody-working-on-the-same-thing attitude. That was one of the reasons family meal was important. And we always had it before service."
Waltuck also delighted in personally cooking for their staff. "It was often something I made and took a lot of pleasure in. In some ways it was more rewarding than cooking for customers, like serving family, or guests in your home."
Thanks to a generation of like-minded contemporaries, things changed. For decades now, staff meal has been assumed in any respectable restaurant—the food, the communal experience of eating it, and the care that is, ideally, put into cooking it. Because it's a manifestation of team spirit as well as a daily tradition, staff meal is often referred to as family meal. But everything has had to budge during our COVID year, and staff meal is no exception. Restaurants around the United States fortunate enough have remained extant and open for business are adjusting the sacred custom in different ways as the pandemic has scuttled team composition, schedules, and budgets. And, of course, CDC guidelines discourage sitting in close proximity, especially with the lowered masks that eating and drinking demand. Accordingly, the only common staff-meal concession during COVID might be that even restaurants still serving food to their employees aren't encouraging them to eat together.
Beyond that, adjustments run the gamut.
"People still need to eat!" says Douglass Williams, chef and owner of Boston's Mida, and a 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef. "Their bodies don't burn less calories because it's COVID."
For Williams, conjuring a familial atmosphere, if only through a shared hot meal, has become even more important than it was pre-pandemic, since safety concerns prevent most employees from visiting their own biological families. Consequently, Williams has encouraged his team to lean into their personal heritages and lovingly cook each other the foods of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti that they grew up on, and/or enjoy on their off days; for example, a cook from Columbia recently made their colleagues sancocho, a chicken soup thickened with plantains and yucca.
Meanwhile, at Dirt Candy in New York City, it's chef-owner Amanda Cohen who's been doing most of the staff-meal preparation for the past year. It's a first for Cohen, whose restaurant began life in a 420-square-foot space in the East Village, before relocating to its current digs on Allen Street, where Chinatown meets the Lower East Side. Even in Dirt Candy's first iteration, this was the one kitchen task she'd never performed—there just wasn't time or bandwidth.
But for now, the tables have turned. With the restaurant operating five days a week and all employees working each of them, Cohen has taken over the responsibilities, except on the odd night when a manager tags in, or they decide to order in.
"I'm the floater," says Cohen. "Everyone else has specific roles. So I have the most time to put it together."
The crash course has given Cohen renewed empathy and admiration for the cooks who usually perform staff meal duties. Dirt Candy is a vegetarian restaurant, so even with frequent menu changes, the walk-in refrigerator's contents rarely change; the cook charged with family meal there, has to work magic with the same roster of proteins (e.g., fried tofu, bean salads,); starches (e.g., pasta, rice), and vegetables (e.g., squash, Brussels sprouts, and mushrooms).
Just what one does with even routine ingredients is what separates a great family-meal cook from a passable one, which hasn't changed during COVID. Edward Lee, chef-owner of several restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C., including 610 Magnolia, Whiskey Dry, and Succotash, and, with Lindsey Ofcacek, co-founder of The LEE Initiative says, "We all know the guy who boils a bunch of vegetables and just tosses them with some pasta. I wouldn't cook my team something I wouldn't serve myself, my mother, or my child. It doesn't have to be fancy. It's not about craft or talent. It's love. It's about creating something beautiful to celebrate family."
Cohen has tried to find that sweet spot, and sometimes succeeds but admits that among the hits there have been a few misses. She says she never considered shutting down family meal at Dirt Candy, but there are restaurants where the custom has been a relatively benign casualty of the pandemic, such as Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours in Atlanta, Georgia. Between orienting several new employees, and acclimating to the stresses of operating in this challenging time, especially in a state with minimal CDC-guideline enforcement, staff meal there gradually faded away.
"It was not a priority to the point it's become nonexistent," says chef and owner Deborah VanTrece. "It does bother me, but it's just how it is right now."
Despite the context, VanTrace misses feeding her team, so she sometimes surprises them with a pot of homemade chili, or even frozen pizzas, served up crispy and golden from the restaurant's high-octane professional ovens. Or she'll spontaneously take a few employees to lunch at what she believes to be a safe restaurant where they can eat together outside.
She also managed to throw a socially distanced staff holiday party in December, a tradition that seemed extra-important this year, serving food and drinks, and reimbursing one and all for the money they had coughed up for Secret Santa presents.
On a meta level, the spirit of family meal has found new outlets throughout the industry, the way The Force bounces around the Star Wars universe. The LEE Initiative started a program to serve Louisville school kids about a year ago, in the early days of COVID, when schools were closed and the crucial meals they provided were cut off. The program, which provided 32,000 meals per week, reminded Lee and Ofcacek of the essence of staff meal, so they named it the LEE Initiative Family Meal. Similarly, the LEE Initiative Restaurant Worker Relief Program partnered with independent restaurants in more than a dozen cities around the country to provide nightly bagged or boxed meals to furloughed restaurant workers in cities around the United States.
As with good family meals, good charitable meals don't require expensive ingredients or show-off technique; only a caring cook. "We get letters and emails from people telling us that they didn't feel they got a 'relief meal', but a home-cooked, delicious meal," says Lee.
Several of Lee's restaurants are temporarily closed, but his flagship 610 Magnolia remains open. There, he provides a nightly boxed meal to the team, but they don't eat together. Rather each employee takes thirty minutes when they can and eats alone, at a safe distance from the others.
Does that bum Lee out?
"Honestly, it's the least of people's worries," he laughs.
After a moment's reflection, he adds: "In normal times, the restaurant business is very regimented, and family meal is a time to relax, enjoy, and cut loose. But now, because of COVID, just being in the restaurant at all, there's such a sense of relief. The camaraderie happens the minute you walk in the door, and that magic lasts all through the night."
Lee adds that the camaraderie also flows between staff and guests, so the sanctuary and release of a traditional modern family meal isn't really necessary. Diners ask the team how they're holding up, maybe even invite them to help themselves to the last glass of wine from a bottle. This new, if likely temporary, dynamic eliminates the need for stiff upper lips. or sublimating one's personal, pandemic-related struggles to conjuring the illusion of a different, relatively carefree time.
"It's a transfer of emotion for both parties," says Lee. "Every night is like a big love fest."