Mention Family Meal in most restaurants and you’ll be answered with groans and snide remarks. The staff meal is usually a buffet of leftovers that no self respecting chef would ever try to pass of on paying customers. That being the case, I was shocked to learn from a friend who works for Gramercy Tavern, the winner of the James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant 2008 and the crown jewel of millionaire restaurateur Danny Meyer’s empire, was having $15 a week deducted from his paycheck for the “privilege” of eating it.
The reality is, that with the demanding hours we in the industry work, a typical lunch break is often out of the question, so having a meal available at work is a necessity. Generally we are fortunate to have a few moments to wolf down whatever is offered before we plunge into service. The juxtaposition of creating elegant refined plates for guests while sustained by little more than chicken wings and dried pasta ourselves always struck me as strange.
Family meal means different things in different houses. Thomas Keller, in his quintessential French Laundry Cookbook, speaks of the importance he places on family meal. He speaks fondly of his experience early in his career when he was tasked with preparing staff meal at The Dunes Club. Jean Georges, the 3 Michelin Star NYC institution employs a full time cook whose sole responsibility is feeding the help.
I worked recently for a Michelin-starred restaurant that offered two family meals a day, as prepared by different stations on a rotating schedule. Depending on how deep in the weeds the cook was on that particular day you got a meal of varying quality. It was rare to see anything more elaborate than pasta a la walk-in, or baked chicken legs with a pitiful excuse for a green salad. Every so often, someone who had been shamed by a dubious family meal prior would really step up and deliver something tasty. But those instances were few and far between.
One of the fish cooks I shared my station with insisted on saving all the scrap trimmings of salmon we portioned throughout the week, keeping them festering in a quart container in our lowboy until our turn for family meal when she would dump the fish with some noodles into some kind of bastard casserole. Still, when the only other option is to work a 14 hour shift on an empty stomach, almost anything looks palatable.
So since staff meal usually strives to be more edible than enjoyable, is it right to charge for it? I’ve heard that this is not an all together uncommon practice. Many companies that engage in it are otherwise great to work for. For example, the very same Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group offers excellent benefits, and is one of the rare employers in this industry to actually pay overtime. They even go so far as to offer employees a $70 a month dining credit, good at any one of their establishments. This just makes it harder for me to understand why they would impose this seemingly mean and petty tax on Family Meal.