Family Meal of the Week: Wild Ginger
There are meals in almost every restaurant serving off-menu items that you would never be lucky enough to eat unless you worked in the restaurant. They’re called family meals and they're served before or after service to feed those who work tirelessly to bring good food to your table — staff members who rarely get a chance to eat during their busy shift.
At downtown’s Wild Ginger, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this month, they refer to their staff meals as “crew chow.” It’s reminiscent of “mess hall”—these guys have to feed upwards of 80 people a night.
Executive chef Jacky Lo invited me in for lunch yesterday. The kitchen is a large one and at around 3:30 p.m., staff were seemingly scattered everywhere enjoying their food. Some were upstairs, while others just pulled up an empty crate and sat down in the kitchen.
“At any given time, we’ve got about 30-40 guys in the kitchen and if everyone cooked their own [meal] it would just be a huge mess,” says Lo. “So, we actually have someone cooking for the crew now. Planning crew chow is a lot of work!”
Crew chow is delivered daily in shifts: 10:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.-ish. The daytime crew eats during the first two sessions, while the dinner shift gets the last two. The morning meal feeds about 18, lunch and dinner hover around 30.
And while everyone is invited to eat, Lo tells me the front of house staff (servers, hostess, bartender, etc.) usually side-eyes the meals. “At some point,” says Lo, “they just wouldn’t eat the stuff we cooked.” They’ll eat the chicken wings and more American-style stuff, but “shrimp paste, fish bone—they won’t join us.”
The staff, which collectively represents nearly every single country in southeast Asia, usually has about 20 minutes to eat.
“We utilize a lot of our leftovers. You name it, we cook it,” Lo tells me.
“When we get a whole lamb, the leftover we make stew out of it. A lot of times when we have a banquet and we’re cooking salmon, the guy who will cut all of the salmon usually leaves a little more meat on the bone than we want, so we’ll cut all that up and marinate it in black bean sauce and then steam it. The guys here love fish. The Chinese love fish, because it’s healthier—less meat eaters. The meat-wise protein you’re looking at is pork or chicken usually.”
Today’s meal comes courtesy of cook Tony Lo (no relation to Jacky). It’s a stew of braised southern-style bean curd with pork, taro and eggplant. It’s spicy, hearty and if served over rice, will leave you satiated for hours.
“Everyone sits down and takes a break,” Lo says, as he talks about the importance of family meal. “The majority of them work 10 hours a day, six days a week. For them, they usually have two meals. It’s good for them to sit down, take a little break, eat and get ready again.”
Everyone from vendors to staff to visitors are welcome to crew chow
“Our rule is if you’re here during that time, eat. There’s always food.”