I’d be blazing a lonely and difficult trail if I stepped out for lunch. The chef would likely add to my mise en place tasks, thinking I didn’t have enough to do. At this early stage in my career the workday begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. On the weekend my shift finishes closer to 1 a.m. I walk home in a stupor—often not cognizant of my route—and drop into bed. Grocery shopping, laundry, any other basic chores are relegated to Monday, my one day off.
The sous-chef is talented at the stove but entirely out of his league where leadership is concerned. He’s like the rest of us in that kitchen, working to win the crumbs of approval scantily scattered by the chef, the celebrated man of the stove. The sous is a ruthless character with a sadistic streak, and the task of ensuring we’re fed is his job. But he's a culinary anorexic, equating hunger with greatness. When he does put up something for us to gobble on the spot, it’s far below the standards of the kitchen we’re in. Gazing into our bowls of near-expired and ill-matched ingredients (generally bound together with pasta), there's no question what he thinks of us. Cooking for us is a task that impinges on his smoke breaks and those bowls are full to the brim of contempt.
What about the abundance of ingredients surrounding me? Can’t I snack on my five-star mise en place? Unfortunately eating the raw materials is frowned on. It's an extravagance that impacts profits. Anything worth eating, including the protein necessary to a good diet, is seriously off limits.
Is it an obligation that a restaurant feed their kitchen staff? Previously, I’d worked in three other great kitchens and never had to consider the question. The assumption was that there was always a meal for those tasked with preparing the food served in the restaurant.
Mind you, it wasn't always free. In one celebrated French kitchen in Toronto, $2 a day was deducted from our pay to feed us. I did question the mad frugality that inspired that $10 weekly deduction from my seriously slim apprentice wages. But it guaranteed a meal, and a good one at that. I recall with hunger that, on Saturday nights before service, we often had the best chicken and chips. A teetering pile of crisp pommes frites and golden, juicy roast chicken all moistened with a rich meaty jus. I approached my station for those mammoth Saturday night services—when four or five hours would pass without notice—well fed.
The marked difference in the meals I describe has everything to do with the character of the person tasked with making it. The chef in charge of staff meals in that French kitchen, knew that a well-fed team would likely lead to a less-stressed, more efficient dinner service. He also couldn’t stoop to a lowered standard, particularly not for his colleagues. Even when time was short—and even for the staff—he produced his best. I call that culinary esteem.
Time is always in short supply in a professional kitchen but I would come to learn that sitting down for a meal was a priority that an executive chef needed to demonstrate. And no matter the length of the to-do list or the press of potential customers, taking 30 minutes out of the day to enjoy the product of our talents was not time lost or wasted.
Staff meal is a demonstration of humanity. Where it’s lacking you’re sure to find a Sweeney Todd meat-grinder approach to work and sustenance. You’d be surprised where this kind of neglect surfaces. Consider it the next time you’re enjoying a great restaurant meal out or eating some high-end artisanal product. The person prepping it might be made to feel bad or lazy about needing nourishment. I visited an esteemed establishment not long ago where breaking for staff lunch was treated as an indulgence. Because I’m old and wise I broke the rule and sat to eat in the makeshift kitchen. A young girl followed my lead, joining me briefly while frantically cramming her sandwich down. She said to me in a hushed tone: “I’m glad you’re here; I needed to eat.”
I bookmark pictures of staff meals regularly—evidence that this Dickensian ideology is disappearing. For many young rising-star cooks, staff meal is a matter of pride, its production a point of friendly competition. They post photos to Twitter and Instagram of their daily repast, egging their peers on in this cordial and collegial pursuit. Staff meal is a place where great and humane strides are being made in our kitchens. In Toronto you’ll find practitioners like Graham Platt of the Gabardine, Rossy Earl of Mysteriously Yours, Matthew DeMille of Drake One Fifty. Further afield staff meal pictures are proudly posted from David Chang's Milk Bar, Sean Brock's Husk restaurant in Nashville, and even a video celebrating the daily break at Noma. The hashtag #staffmeal is a global repository of culinary mindfulness.
Most young cooks have discarded the proletariat label and simply call it “family meal.” That’s a shift. When an executive chef makes it a priority, finding time for preparing and enjoying this repast is easy. There’s a wonderful trickle-down effect too. Young chefs who’ve been fed well don’t give the practice a second thought when they’re charged to lead.
I’ve joked with Rossy Earl on more than one occasion that I want to work for her just to enjoy her family meals—they’re stunning. Did my work suffer all those years ago for lack of nourishment? Who knows? But its effects on my spirit are obvious. That lack of care and attention to all details left an impression. I can barely recall the food I cooked in that kitchen but I surely remember the food I was denied.