Served: Feeding Family

I blog by day and wait tables by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!

20080616-servedbug.jpg"F. was going to eat your rueben," J. says, "but I stopped him." Thank God!

The closing server (that's me) gets to work at 6, usually quite some time after the chef emerges from the basement with family meal. J. always makes sure that something is left for me. Tonight we have leftover goose breast ruebens, which are obscenely delicious slathered in horseradish aioli, and a salad with greens, faro, oranges, and feta.

"Family meal," for those not in the know, is what the kitchen cooks up to feed the restaurant's staff before service. Depending on the establishment and the night, family meal might entail sad scraps or an awesome feast. How a restaurant feeds its own says a lot about its culture.

At my place, the staff is too tiny to assemble for a formal affair. We eat at the bar or by the cheese station while folding napkins or catching up. The kitchen brings us something tasty more often than not. Chorizo and egg sandwiches, or pork butt and pepper quesadillas, or pizzas studded with chevre, tomato, and bacon.

Cooking for the Fam

When I interned in a kitchen last summer, cooking for family often fell into my hands. "What can I use?" I'd ask someone with any semblance of authority. We'd go through the walk-in and they'd point haphazardly at carrots, ginger, shallots, sausage.

On my first night, a loud and often furious cook with a thick Ukranian accent and a pirate flag bandanna taught me how to make chicken piccata for family meal. We butterflied chicken breasts, dredged them in egg and flour, and fried them in clarified butter until they were sizzly and gold. We squeezed lemon juice into the pan, poured in white wine, and decorated the dish with capers. He made his chicken with love, and he happily passed on his method to me. "It's a classic! And so simple! Everyone loves it! You should make it for your friends..."

The next week, the pirate cook was gone. I had liked him despite his mercurial temper, but it turned out he devoted considerably more time and effort executing his family favorites for the staff's dinner than to doing his job.

I missed his creations, though. The other cooks resented preparing family meal. I can understand why--the timing is totally inopportune. Just before service, the cooks have to get everything set up and ready to go for the night ahead. It is a time crunch, often an impossible one. Then they get thrown a mandate to feed the entirety of the sometimes picky or unappreciative staff. It seems unfair.

Hot Dogs and Beyond

Post Pirate, one of my fellow cooks took to asking a hostess whom he had a crush on what she wanted to eat. Usually, she requested hot dogs. Really? Hot dogs? But he would make them for her. And for everyone else, too. It was a summer of countless hot dogs.

I liked making family meal. Being an intern meant I was under less pre-service pressure, so I had the time to turn carrots and sausages into dinner. One of things I didn't like about working back-of-the-house was the lack of feedback. Did table 27 like the duck? Sure, the server might say so, but I rarely got to hear it or see it myself. Family meal was a different story. If I cooked up something that rocked, the staff would tell me so, declare their undying love for me, and line up for more. If not, my carrots and sausages would languish, untouched. I would duck my head so as to avoid the hungry, angry glares that were surely being channeled my way.

I Want Some of That!

I hadn't seen K., who cooks where I work now, for way too long. I didn't wait for him to finish talking to the chef before throwing my arms around him shamelessly. I nearly flung him across the kitchen, or smothered him, or both.

"...absolutely NO TRUFFLE CHEESE FRIES for family," our chef was telling him. "No matter what!"

"Even if they do this?" he asked her, referring to my gigantic embrace.

"Even if they do that!" she maintained.

Their placement on the "do not eat" list made the truffle cheese fries ever more tempting. As if anything fried and covered with truffled cheese sauce is not tempting enough. On the truffle cheese fries' last night on the menu, the cook made us a big bowlful. We bid them farewell.

It's Hard To Wait Tables While Ravenous

Family meal is a tradition dating back to the beginning of restaurant time.

I helped open the place where I work now. Initially, we were family meal-less. We were just getting things up and running, and the kitchen had too much to do to find time to feed us. in the first few weeks, we ordered copious amounts of pizza. On the uncommon occasion when I remembered to bring nourishment, a cook would have rare time and whip up something delicious for family. It always works out like that.

At the end of the night, we would order a flurry of food to share, lining up glasses so we could judiciously taste different things with different wines. How else would we have discovered that the bruleed blue cheese with bing cherries was perfect with sparkling shiraz?

Eventually, rules were instituted. These days, there is less reckless ordering of everything on the menu. But the ugly last slice of cake is for family. The scrawny peppedews, for family. And anything new, we must try before we can sell. It's hard to talk up (or talk at all about) something I haven't eaten. Ask me about the peppedews, though, and I bet you'll want some. They're like crack.

All in the Family

J. brings in the best snacks ever. Prosciutto and melon, her mom's cashew brittle, kettle corn from a street fair, hummus. I owe her a lifetime of snacks. One night I'm at the restaurant having dinner with friends, and I visit her station to say hi. "Here," she pops a piece of white chocolate coconut fudge into my mouth. Damn. T. will occasionally feel inspired to grill up some endive, or make cheese s'mores (!!!), and a cook will sometimes run downstairs to concoct a midnight snack.

When I was a cook, many of us in the kitchen would forgo family meal, even if it meant working a long, sweaty, crazy dinner service without dinner in our own bellies. We just didn't have time to eat. After service, we would grill ourselves juicy burgers or scoop out that last risotto that never made it out of the pan and onto a plate. A kind waiter would bring us a pitcher of beer or a bottle of wine to drink while we wrapped and swept and wiped. Those haphazard meals tasted better than pretty much anything, ever. Hunger and exhaustion will do that to you. And those burgers were damn good!

The name says it all. The guests who visit, drink, and dine make any restaurant possible and worthwhile. But those people, they are customers. We who cook, clean, and serve--we are family.