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.
By far the biggest meal I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing since starting this weekly column can be found at one of my favorite restaurants: Stoneburner in Ballard. Chef Jason Stoneburner had no less than 12 plates of food on the table when I arrived last Friday afternoon.
Getting a staff meal cooked by Stoneburner himself is a real treat, as the duty often goes to someone else.
“In the kitchen, it always just depends who has time,” he tells me. “It could be a cook from the evening that comes in and might not have as much prep to do or it could be a sous chef or it could be anybody that has the time, essentially or whomever is directed to do it. Sometimes we have ambitious cooks that want to kind of show the staff what they’ve got and they can flex their muscle a little bit.”
Today’s meal: vinegar beef with some lovage salsa verde; green beans with celery heart, pistachios and mint; lettuce cups to scoop the beef into; charred fingerling potatoes; romanesco squash; and Padrón peppers a farmer brought in for Stoneburner to sample. “He wants me to sell them, but he grows them next to jalapenos—they’re cross-bred—so they will light you up!” Stoneburner says they’re too hot for the regular menu, but fit right in for family meal, where today’s spread is kind of an anomaly.
“I know this looks fancy and I can serve it to the diners tonight, but it’s all leftovers believe it or not. We actually have a shelf in the walk-in where all the little odds and ends make their way onto—it’s the family shelf—so you can look at that and map out what your family meal is going to be for the day.”
“There’s been days where you get burnt meatballs and a big bowl of pasta or carb central—buttered noodles, potatoes and rice. It happens, but I tell the cooks one simple thing: if you’re going to touch food, if you’re going to work with food, try to always have that focus and put something nice out. Regardless if it’s for co-workers that maybe you don’t care for as much as the diners or it’s not the best product that you’re used to working with, you need to make the best out of it. It’s a simple philosophy.”
In Stoneburners long career in the kitchen, he’s seen his share of bad family meals. But the one he talks about is just mean.
“One of the worst family meals I’ve ever seen was someone saved all the feet from the scallops. You know, the little adductor muscle you take off when you get them. They took that and they sautéed it in a little bit of butter and that was family meal.”
The family meals here feed anywhere between 8 and 23 staff members and is usually served at 3:30 p.m.
“Sitting and enjoying a meal is fleeting. I actually can’t enjoy a meal sitting down. It’s really hard for me to do that. We actually all do sit down together. I make everyone sit down. No one is allowed to walk around and eat. Everyone is supposed to enjoy it within a half hour and after that it’s removed. I encourage everybody to sit down together, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Usually I’ll scoop some family meal into a bowl or a quart container and sit down and eat it really fast and excuse myself and get back to work.”
In that short amount of time allotted, the crew does find time to share stories.
“It’s always NC-17 definitely. I’ve heard it all!” (They must have been keeping it clean for my sake this particular day).
“This is a completely thankless industry. It truly is. Obviously, we have our core diners that give us pats on the back, but for the most part, it’s absolutely thankless and this is a way we can say ‘thank you’ to our staff and show them that we care because we constantly forget to stop and say that.”