“An Italian restaurant is like a big family, ” a chef had said to me while he served me my antipasti. “It’s normal to eat together.” I stumbled upon a wine bar in Florence early one evening, a little too early; some restaurants in Florence, like this one, don’t open until 7:30. I felt his pity fall upon me as he welcomed me in to sit at the bar and have a drink. He was referring to the restaurant’s “family meal,” served to the staff prior to the start of a work shift. Fortunately for me, I was able to witness this special communal gathering of employees. It was only special because, despite having worked in kitchens for several years, I had never experienced a true family meal such as this. I watched the servers set the table for eight and watched the cooks bring out fish, pasta, and fresh cut tomatoes. They opened bottles of red wine and drank bottled water. They ate, argued, and laughed.
This is one restaurant’s family meal set-up in Italy.
Here’s a picture of the manager and server during their family meal.
I remember my first experiences with family meal; as the newest cook, the responsibility for preparing the meal fell on me, yet the girl training me hated family meal, which is why she cooked scrambled eggs and potatoes every day. Everyone resented her for that, even the chef. I struggled to create food that the staff would enjoy, swearing never to make scrambled eggs. I grew bitter on nights when the cooks passed on my family meal. Chef tried to encourage me. “You’ll learn to be a better cook; cooking for your peers will be your hardest task.” I brushed it off, too overwhelmed to comprehend. But slowly it happened. I learned to make family meals fun, cooking traditional Vietnamese food that was unfamiliar to the staff. Still, we never ate together. I ate alone, standing at my station, the others at theirs: None of us really liked each other to begin with.
Observing this communal meal in a restaurant in Italy forced me to think about that chef’s idealism of “restaurant as family.” The family meals, it seemed, were only the conspicuous activities symbolic of this ideal, tasks implemented by the chefs. Was it possible to assess a kitchen’s culture by watching their family meal?
Though I realize that the culture of the professional kitchen is a culmination of the various attitudes and energies of chefs and management, size of restaurant, so on, is it fair to judge the kitchen culture on the basis of their family meal? I don’t doubt that restaurants that don’t dedicate time to sit together for a family meal lack the kinship and camaraderie of restaurants that do. Many American restaurants do focus their energy on family meal. In June of 2007 Randy Kennedy wrote an article in the New York Times admiring Per Se’s family meal where cooks took pride in creating.
“Often the fascination was simply in seeing how ingredients were alchemized, how that same English cucumber, vacuumed, compressed and barely recognizable in a Sunday-night salad, became the dice in a fine, simple yogurt sauce Monday afternoon for a North African family meal of lamb and falafel.”
But where’s the “family” bit in their family meal? In many American restaurants family meal appears food driven - a test of one’s culinary skill and a rite of passage to chefdom. So, in a way, there might be something worth examining in the kitchens whose chefs place an importance on the communal gathering of employees, both cooks and servers, before a busy night. In Italy, family meal is a convention that chefs and managers give thoughtful consideration to and has become a significant part of everyday restaurant life. And for this reason, I view the family meal as a ritual. Paul Connerton, in How Societies Remember,
discusses rituals as expressive acts whose performance implies a conspicuous acceptance of its meaning.
All restaurants employees understand the function of a family meal; it is food that cooks prepare to feed the restaurant staff before a long and stressful night of service. But its role in the workplace depends on how kitchens embrace them into their restaurant culture. The time of the meal varies across restaurants, sometimes occurring before the restaurant opens or at the time of closing. The presence of family meal, and even lack thereof, underlies the social and occupational dynamics of the entire restaurant.
It’s difficult to compare restaurants across cultures especially those in America with ones in Italy. Many people know that, in Italy, restaurants are extensions of the family, so an eloquent family meal is only consistent with their way of life. But, just sometimes, a seemingly mundane activity such as eating can bring to light the most subtle and unspoken attributes of any one culture.