The pre-service meal for restaurant staff can be a thing of beauty.
We chatted with the teams behind the five restaurants nominated this year for James Beard Awards in Outstanding Service to find out what they eat before service begins—at family meal. Whether the staff gathers in the kitchen or a sunny spot outside, the communal meal offers a chance for servers and kitchen staff to unwind, learn about new menu items, and, most importantly, eat delicious food.
Here, find out what the staff eats at some of the best restaurants in the country.
Zuni Café, San Francisco, CA
"The favorite family meal of Zuni varies but a couple of favorites include: tostadas (open faced fried tortillas with chicken, vegetables or beans with pickled onions and cheese), pasta and garlic bread, and always lots of salad.
Our staff is incredibly close. I do believe that most of us consider each other family. When we eat together, we are reminded that this is more than a job. This is our home. Our family meal is a time to laugh, catch up, and check-in, just as you would with your parents, siblings, friends, or partner.
One time, about nine years ago, while I was up getting a glass of water, a certain server thought it would be funny to hide a bunch of Tabasco in my sandwich. All hell broke loose when I returned to my food and took the first bite. We still laugh about it to this day."
- Jessica Kanat, former server, current manager
Saison, San Francisco, CA
“It is called family meal for a reason. It’s a special time of the day to get to know each other better, to nourish and take a breath around people we work next to all day long.”
- Chef Joshua Skenes
Zahav, Philadelphia, PA
"There have been a few occasions, usually special occasions, when the kitchen makes Korean-style fried chicken with harissa – a spicy, red Tunisian condiment made with Aleppo peppers. Everyone is licking their fingers by the end of staff meal, it's that delicious. Family meal to the staff is like happy hour – a time when they can all come together, relax, and just be themselves. It's a nice break from the often tough restaurant work, and it's incredibly important to be able to take time to breathe during their long shifts. It's also not just about satisfying their appetite. The meal needs to satisfy us all mentally. If we're coming away from a good meal full of good energy, then we can go back to our work and make service that much better. It fires up our staff to have this time to take care of themselves.
It's the time when the sentiments of service that Mike has deeply instilled in the restaurant are on display. Be yourself, be comfortable, and do great work while having a good time. And that's what we do during family meal – enjoy each other's company."
- General Manager Okan Yazici
Boka, Chicago, IL
"We have a rotation of recipes we make every week, however the staff’s favorite is always Chinese Chicken Lettuce Wraps. They’re healthy and after eating them our team doesn't feel sluggish during service. We serve chicken breasts at the restaurant, and use the leftover chicken thighs for the lettuce wraps. We marinate and grill the thighs and serve them with pickled vegetables, spicy sauce, and rice in iceberg lettuce.
Family meal is very important to our staff. It is essential that we give a meal to both front and back of house to help fill the team up to be their best for service. It’s also an opportunity for us to all sit together as a group for 25 minutes and catch up with one another about life outside of Boka, while taking a short break before service.
Chefs occasionally volunteer to treat the staff to some of their favorite meals. My CDC Eddie Lee once made Korean BBQ just like he grew up eating. It required days of prep but was a really special moment for our staff. We’re also lucky in Chicago that so many restaurants support one another with family meal. Our neighbors at Alinea have sent us Jimmy John’s and friends of ours at Shake Shack or Pizzeria Bebu have sent over meal for our crew too."
- Executive chef Lee Wolen
Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Ann Arbor, MI
"Due to Zingerman's large staff size (over 200 individuals) and long hours of operation (7 a.m. – 10 p.m.), we don’t have a typical 'everyone sits together' staff meal. Every staff member is able to order their individual meal, exactly as they like it (vegan, gluten-free, etc.) from our full menu. Their meals have the same priority and focus on perfection as any other order. We do, however, have "ZupFronts." ZupFronts are similar to a pre-meal, or upfront. Twice a day, 14 times a week, we gather the staff to go over new ingredients, customer requests, basic training reinforcements, and tastings. ZupFronts can range from sampling a dozen different Reubens in the city to compare to our own, to discussing Code Reds. Code Reds are our staff’s documents of customer complaints or suggestions for improvement, like requests for new products. (If, for example, 20 guests last week asked why we didn't carry chocolate-covered ants, and more asked this week, seems like we should have one of our buyers travel to find the best chocolate covered ants on the planet).
These ZupFronts are a time to take a break from service, come together and all contribute to the Deli’s overall quality. They are also a time to socialize as a family and take a break from the hectic service schedule. They are incredibly bonding and allow each member of our staff to share their ideas and make sure their voices are heard."
- Rick Strutz, co-managing partner