Did you ever stop and think about what the folks cooking or serving your restaurant meals have for their own dinner? They’re working all through the dinner hour, after all.
Unsurprisingly, at many Louisville-area restaurants, a long-standing tradition is for staff to eat together, often before their shift. Known as the family meal, this can be when some of the more interesting, home-cooked style dishes are prepared. It’s also a time for folks to come together outside of the rush and enjoy dining together, just like everyone about to walk in the door will.
And there’s no shortage of approaches, meal types or traditions at local spots.
“Our family meal is served every night before our dinner service. It could be something as simple as hamburger and fries, Asian stir fry, meatloaf, mac and cheese, a casserole, pizza or pasta. Sometimes our kitchen staff will individually cook meals for the entire restaurant staff and other times it is executed by my sous chefs,” said chef John Plymale of Porcini Restaurant, 2730 Frankfort Ave.
The family meal was “first started this to build camaraderie between all our team members. Our conversations could be something as simple as what did you do last night or as complex as someone’s love life; what’s happening in the near future for restaurants; or just a few minutes of quiet time before we go to our nightly service sequence,” he added.
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Often on special holidays, like Christmas, New Year’s Eve or the Kentucky Derby, the Porcini team “will also do post-service meals just as a way of saying thanks for all your hard work and to get a little something in your stomach before you have to come back the next shift for another busy evening of service,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s nice, because with all of the hustle and bustle, we also often forget to take time to enjoy the company and just spend a little time with each other during one of our only quiet times of the evening. We will also talk about our specials for the evening, any wines we may be out of, drink specials, pasta specials, and just expectations for that evening.”
What the kitchen prepares, though, often changes by season. In the summertime, “it may be something as simple as a dessert from our pastry chef or produce from our own garden or just grilling some pork chops with BBQ sauce,” Plymale said. “We keep it simple, tasty, and with a purpose to take the edge off our hungry staff and to tell them: we do this because we appreciate you.”
At Brooklyn and The Butcher, 148 E Market St., in New Albany, chef Ming Pu says the family meal is an “everyday” occurrence. For his team, a go to is 5 Spice Beef Stew, which consist of beef scraps the kitchen has from breaking down ribeyes and strips, soy sauce, carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes along with the five spice whole spices like cloves, cinnamon, star anise, peppercorns and fennel.
“I like to do one pot family meals like this because you can feed the masses and incorporate proteins and vegetables so the staff can have a wholesome meal that’s not chicken tenders and fries,” Pu told the Courier Journal. “We usually serve this with a side of nishiki rice.”
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Pu has brought a little of his family’s heritage and tradition to the special go-to dish. It’s related “to a five spice braised beef dish my mom used to make when I was a child. … I want to introduce my staff to the flavors of my childhood but also make them something that was approachable so that’s how this dish became a traditional family meal dish in our restaurant.”
At The Mayan Cafe, a farm-to-table Mexican and Pan-Latin restaurant in NuLu at 813 E. Market St., the front-of-house family meal happens at the end of the evening. The kitchen team takes turns making it, “although it’s usually Esli, our sous chef who makes it,” said co-owner Anne Shadle.
“He uses this meal as a chance to try new ideas, use up little bits of produce left from the day or make something totally off menu. Bruce [Ucán], our owner, is usually in the kitchen Monday nights and he loves making pasta for the crew. Or egg sandwiches — he goes in phases,” Shadle said.
Sometimes the kitchen team will pair its family meal with wine “with each server picking a different wine and describing the pairing. It’s a time for us to let down and breathe together, vent about the night, get to know each other on a deeper level ,” she said. “It’s a really lovely time we share. Food brings our guests together and it also brings our staff together.”
Staff meals are just as important at historic hotel-based restaurants, like the ones in The Brown Hotel, 335 W. Broadway.
“Staff meal is a huge part of the day for our crew. Usually, the meal consists of comfort food from where one of our cooks grew up,” said chef Dustin Williett. “Any extra product is incorporated to make a delicious meal. We always make sure that there is a protein, starch and vegetable.”
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And like every good meal, there are always “bonus items, too, such as salad or dessert. Everything runs smooth when the team is well fed so whether it is beef stroganoff or chicken adobo with rice, we make sure the team is fueled up and ready to go.”
For Zack Wolfe, with Olé Hospitality Group, which runs Guaca Mole Modern Mexican, El Taco Luchador, La Bodeguita de Mima, Steak & Bourbon, and Señora Arepa, the family meal “is a time that we can take a break and come together. Get hydrated and fed for the upcoming shift. For us, we’re focused on family home recipes. With Venezuelan, Mexican, and Cuban concepts, we’re blessed to have a lot of staff from all over Latin America, so there’s always variety ,” he told the Courier Journal.
But when Wolfe is making the meal, he ventures into more “traditional” cuisine.
“If I’m in charge, I like to go with meatloaf. It’s a dish you can throw in the oven and forget. It’s always satisfying and you can include a lot of different ingredients from the kitchen,” he said.
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