At some of New York’s most popular restaurants, the good eats begin long before the first table is ever seated. Erin Bremer joins the cooks, bussers, waiters, managers, chefs, and dishwashers at eight of the city’s top family meals and discovers the importance of a well-fed staff.
Story by Erin Bremer
Photography by Michael Harlan Turkell
"Would you like some wine?” asked the neatly attired twentysomething sitting across from me. Now I’m not one to turn down a glass of anything, but I hesitated and instinctively looked to the den mother at the end of the long, crowded table. Suddenly I was fifteen again, caught reaching for the Riesling at Christmas. But she just shrugged and smiled: “I don’t mind if they have a little drink with their meal.”
My tablemate poured me a short glass before returning to his fried catfish and conversation. Pops, the matriarch’s husband, pulled up a seat beside me, a full plate in front of him. “So where are you from?” he asked, his voice as calm as his wife’s. When I told him New Orleans, our talk turned quickly to family and food — the fried catfish had been a prescient choice, he said.
Then, in a flash, the twentysomething and his cohorts around us began to disperse, dutifully taking their dishes to the kitchen sink. Mom and Pops lingered at the table, enjoying the final few moments of respite before their humble home on Harrison Street turned back into one of New York’s most beloved restaurants.
The extended family that I had joined on that spring afternoon in Tribeca shared no blood relations, of course: They were the chefs, line cooks, runners, servers, bussers, and dishwashers of Karen and David “Pops” Waltuck’s Chanterelle. In 1979, the couple opened the gourmet French restaurant in a small SoHo storefront at Grand and Greene — David as the executive chef, Karen the front-of-house manager — and though it has since moved farther downtown, Chanterelle remains a New York institution.
It must be said that my dining experience was very different than that of any Chanterelle regular later that night — or likely any other night in the restaurant’s previous three decades of service. There was no ordering or waiting for the next course; I didn’t sample the artisanal cheeses or foie gras. In fact, what I ate wasn’t even on the menu. I had arrived at 4 p.m. to experience a daily ritual that takes place in hundreds of restaurants across the city, and in thousands more across the country: family meal. Chanterelle was the last stop on a month-long, eight-venue culinary tour of Manhattan. My mission was simple: to see how a restaurant, with seemingly endless talent and resources in the kitchen, nourishes its staff, and how that 20-minute meal impacts the seven hours of dinner service that follows.
I’ll admit that my previous exposure to family meal was limited. During my high-school tenure at a certain Australian-themed chain steakhouse, “family meal” consisted of whatever quick snacks I could stealthily compose in the kitchen during my shift — usually the house bread topped with cheese and bacon. At considerably more lofty establishments, though, formal family meals take place shortly before lunch or dinner service, giving staff members time to both relax and rev up before their long and arduous shifts. It’s a simple concept, and as I discovered while hopping from one acclaimed New York restaurant to the next, if you’re lucky to work somewhere that serves caramelized, blanched, or poached vegetables, rather than “bloomin’ ” ones, you’re in for a real treat.
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"Finally someone writes up our family meal!” a server at Danny Meyer’s esteemed Gramercy Tavern said to her friend just within my earshot. “We have the best one!” Indeed, the impressive eight-course spread was easily the largest of the bunch as well as one of the tastiest. The cornerstones of the meal were a traditional coq au vin — “Just like grand-mére used to make it,” professed Chef Tournant Greg Marchand — and Pastry Chef Nancy Olson’s strawberry shortcake, so good I went back for seconds and took home thirds. The dessert was a special treat in honor of the first day of strawberry season at the Union Square Greenmarket, where the restaurant gets 95 percent of its produce in the summertime.
A day earlier and a bit farther west, the former Nabisco factory in the meatpacking district was also turning out impressive fare. There, in the sprawling, echo-friendly Buddakan — a space so palatial, in fact, Carrie Bradshaw hosted her rehearsal dinner there — the wildly efficient kitchen serves up to 1,000 people on busy nights, not to mention 100-plus staff members every afternoon. At Buddakan, and elsewhere, the correlation between the styles of food served to each camp is not as strong as one might imagine. Although some ingredients overlap, the restaurant’s Chinese fusion fare makes only sporadic appearances at 4 p.m., and since dishes are served buffet style, there are few points for presentation. Bold dishes, without much fuss, dominate. On the day I visited, Buddakan’s small army, including owner and restaurateur Stephen Starr, was abuzz over P.M. Sous Chef Dale Talde’s stunning loss the night before on Top Chef (word was he took the day off and silenced his cell phone). Amid their blow-by-blow recount of the episode, they dined on exquisite Archari short ribs and Bengali fish curry, both courtesy of A.M. Sous Chef Ali Loukzada’s Persian-Indian background.
Though patrons may catch glimpses of it during a typical dinner, a chef’s heritage is never more apparent than when he or she cooks for staff meal. At the Mercer Kitchen, Staff Meal Chef Jennifer Luces’ curried chicken showcased her Trinidadian roots, while at Midtown’s Toloache, Sous Chef’s Arteño Barreto chicken and pork adobo stew with Mexican rice and a fiery guacamole sauce felt right at home at the contemporary Mexican spot. Incidentally, the assumption that New York’s primarily Latin-American back-of-house staffs steer most family meals toward their native cuisines — as author Bill Buford suggested in Heat, his behind-the-scenes look at Mario Batali’s restaurant empire — went mostly unfounded, at least during my visits. At Toloache, hamburgers and fried chicken have certainly made an appearance or two, said manager Victor Medina: “They can do whatever they want to do, so they really prepare whatever they like.”
There’s considerably less carte blanche at other restaurants, at least in terms of ingredients. At Centovini, a SoHo restaurant and wine bar with a Moss-designed interior so richly simple it garnered a James Beard nomination this year, it’s all about the leftovers. Chef de Cuisine Christine Lau never throws anything away. Anything.
“Tina will dig out the gills,” explained Executive Chef Patti Jackson.
“Hey, you can cut the cheeks out [of a black bass] and it’s really good,” Lau countered. The duo’s banter shifted to their affinity for a house dish called “Mega Mezcla.” “You know, the big mix,” said Jackson of the mishmash of meat and vegetable leftovers from the restaurant’s regular menu. “It’s a standard Central and South American dish. Whenever I worked with Salvadorians, they used a literal Salvadorian word for ‘slop.’ ” She laughed and, in her best accent, imitated the explanation she once received, “ ‘You know, the jar by the door they keep for the pigs?’ ”
This time, rather than sit in the dining room with the front-of-house staff as usual, I ate standing up in the kitchen with the back-of-house crew. There was too much laughter, too much light-hearted ribbing — neither of which was terribly common among other family meals. Staffers elsewhere usually ate quickly amid light chatter. At Centovini, however, as well as at Allen & Delancey, the expectation is to keep the atmosphere as relaxed as possible.
“Typically it’s a social time,” explained Brad McDonald, sous chef at the Lower East Side haunt, where couscous and curried lamb shoulder that fell apart at a light touch were dished out. “We don’t spend too much time talking about what’s going on in service tonight unless it’s really important. It’s typically just to have a good laugh.”
As one might expect at Thomas Keller’s four-star Per Se, it’s not all fun and games. “We’re lucky in the front of the house that we get to sit [after staff meal],” explains Jefferson Kohler, an expediter. “In the kitchen, it’s that warning bell that service is coming and you need to make sure you’re all put together.” The distinction between the front-of-house and back-of-house was all too evident there and at Gramercy Tavern, where the former team eats in the dining room while the latter eats at their work stations, the result of a shortage of prep time, managers explain. Per Se compensates, however, with a house tradition.
“The FOH staff each makes up a plate for the kitchen,” says Kohler. “It’s sort of a ‘Thank you for making this meal. We’re going to make sure you guys get fed.’ ” On the day I visited, that meant dual plates of serious comfort food: fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, and apple crisp.
Chanterelle was the only stop where the division between front and back seemed to disappear. “It feels like family to a large degree,” says Chef Waltuck. “We spend a great deal of time here and we all get along.” Indeed, everyone present for staff meal, including employees who stuck around from lunch service waiting for their second meal of the day, sits at one long table in the dining room. Plates are saved for those who come later, but I can’t imagine why anyone would intentionally miss a Chanterelle staff meal — they literally wrote the book on it, Staff Meals by Chanterelle, in 2000.
Although the philosophy behind staff meal remains the same, Waltuck admits the offerings have changed since the cookbook’s publication. “Everything’s gotten so expensive,” he says. “[The increase in fuel costs and other commodities] all filters down to everything else. I think we were probably a little bit more extravagant with the staff meals than we are now.”
At most of the restaurants, a lack of time on a particular day can also restrict what’s served. It’s not uncommon to provide hot dogs or deli sandwiches to staff members if there’s lots of prepping to do before a busy night. Unsurprisingly, this never happened on the days I visited, although my looks of incredulity at the quality of some of the offerings was quickly countered by an insistence by staffers that staff meals usually were this good. Usually.
“One day last week we bought 24 pizzas,” said Buddakan Executive Chef Lon Symensma. “But we do what we can do. Every day is a different experience. There’s no monotony.”
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That’s the idea behind the best family meals. Make them simple, well rounded, diverse, and delicious, and you’ll keep your staff happy. It’s a sentiment shared by all eight of the restaurants I visited, though it’s probably no coincidence that the three restaurants known for both stellar food and remarkable service offered the most noteworthy staff meals. This year, the Zagat Survey ranked Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, and Chanterelle among the most popular restaurants in town (numbers 1, 13, and 17, respectively). Gramercy has held that top spot for four of the past five years, and is just one of the jewels in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, a collection of restaurants known for its impeccable service. In his 2006 tome on the industry, Setting the Table, Meyer introduces the concept of “enlightened hospitality,” in which management extends hospitality first to its employees. Meyer points out that the attitudes of a restaurant’s staff directly influence those of the customers, so why not start hospitality at its own source?
At Per Se, a pre-shift meeting that follows family meal hits on the standard points of service but also emphasizes the treatment of customers. A pre-shift handout read, “Seek first TO understand, THEN to be understood.” You can almost hear Keller reciting the mantra to his team, insisting that its core implication — take care of those who take care of you — guide everyone from the maître d’ up front to the greenest prep cook in the kitchen. In the chef’s 1999 French Laundry Cookbook, based on his other three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Valley, Keller devotes an entire section to “The Importance of Staff Meal,” his respect for which stems from an early job as a staff meal chef at the Dunes Club in Rhode Island. “Staff meal was first about the fundamentals of cooking … but the message underlying that was, ‘Can you be passionate about cooking at this level?’ ” Keller writes. “If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity, and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you’ll be a great chef. Maybe.” (That crispy fried chicken, by the way, threw “maybe” out the Time Warner Center’s towering windows.)
Back at Chanterelle, the Waltucks reminded their staff to pick up the check before the customers leave the table and, “Wish them well. Service is not over until they’re out the door.” Our wine and catfish finished, the Waltucks and I cleared our plates to the kitchen, which was already bustling in anticipation of the dinner rush. I thanked David for the meal as Karen brought over a tray of petits fours, her commitment to service apparently still not complete. “We hope to see you again soon,” she said, offering up the bite-sized treats. I wonder if they’ll accept a 4 p.m. reservation.