Unless they have incredible luck or great connections, waiters rarely start their careers in the restaurant of their choice. Most have to first do time in the kind of places that hire people with no experience and throw them on the floor to sink or swim. For discussion’s sake, we’ll call these places “awful.”
When learning my waiter ropes years ago in Austin, Texas, I worked at a restaurant like this. Yes, I had a grisly shift (6:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.) and creepy late-night regulars (like Wordless Wes, the greasy-faced massage parlor owner who came in every morning at 3 a.m. to glower at me over his bottomless cup of coffee).
But those weren’t the most awful things about the place. Because the (crazed, Machiavellian) owner believed everyone stole from him and no one worked hard enough, he had this rule: no employee was allowed to eat or drink anything at all during his or her shift — not even the 12-hour ones, not even water. Anyone caught doing it was fired on the spot. Suffice it to say we were a mean and lean team, emphasis on both.
It’s no exaggeration that when I finally landed a job at the restaurant of my choice and had my first family meal (a meal prepared by the kitchen expressly for the staff), I felt like the Little Match Girl, died and gone to heaven.
Usually a specially made dish (as opposed to something off the menu), family meals — or staff meals, as they’re sometimes called — are done differently from restaurant to restaurant, in the restaurants that do them. But whether served buffet-style or at the table, before the shift or after, good family meals provide much more than simple sustenance.
“You can be creative, try new things and get first-hand feedback from the staff,” said Emily Meyer, executive chef at Beaver Creek’s Golden Eagle Inn, who serves her family meal at shift’s end. “It’s also a good way to utilize what’s left at the end of service. Last night, we had a little elk meat left, so our family meal was elk stew with elk trim, carrot and potatoes. Cooking the last of the elk so it could be enjoyed instead of throwing it away was important to me. A living, breathing animal gave its life; let’s not waste it.”
It can sometimes be challenging though, Meyer said, for a kitchen crew to feel motivated to whip up a family meal for a dozen or more hungry employees, especially in restaurants that serve both lunch and dinner. “As a chef, you’re tired, you haven’t eaten all day yourself, and then you have this in front of you to do,” she said. “So some nights it’s like, ‘Hey, chicken fingers, guys: let’s go!”
Rapport and respect
Doug McAvity, executive chef at Vail’s Up The Creek Bar & Grill, echoed this last point.
“We serve straight through: lunch at 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., then dinner from 4 to close,” McAvity said. To ameliorate the strain on his busy kitchen staff, McAvity’s lunch crew orders off the menu, while the dinner crew is served a staff meal before dinner service starts. “Usually we don’t go off the menu for that, but make something really nice for them. It’s nice to have everyone sit down and talk, and if the cooks can get out and sit down too, that’s great for building rapport. I look at it as a gesture of mutual respect, from employer to employee. We want to make sure you’re taken care of, because if you’re happier, our guests will be, too.”
Speaking of happier, the staff meal at Up The Creek includes a drink at the end of a shift, which McAvity says is a nice way to reflect on and celebrate the evening.
‘We are family’
Family meal has a special meaning for Richard Hinojosa, executive chef at Vail’s Larkspur Restaurant.
“At work, we are a family,” he said. “And most of us, at least during season, spend more time with our work ‘family’ than our personal families. So this is our chance to break bread and enjoy a meal together before we’re on for service.”
For Larkspur’s dinner crew, family meal is served at 5:15 p.m., either in the private dining room or in the chef’s room.
“My go-tos are stir-fry noodles, fried rice or chicken katsu,” Hinojosa said. “These were some of my favorites from my time in Hawaii. But it could be everything from salads to chicken wings, pot pies, meatloaf, pastas, Larkburgers and our popular beef tacos.”
Larkspur’s lunch family meal is often prepared by purchasing director Shawn O. Simard, who, before taking on his current role, worked in restaurant kitchen for 17 years.
“Preparing family meal gives me the opportunity to get my fix and cook again. It boosts morale when the food is good, and I’ve perfected a couple of things that are both economical and crowd-pleasers. A couple of weeks ago, I made blueberry lemon pancakes. It was nice to see smiles on everyone’s faces,” he said.
Mike Padrick, a Larkspur server for over 8 years, agrees.
“It’s an opportunity for spontaneous camaraderie,” he said. “During family meal, someone decides they’re extra funny, and they are funny that day. Jokes are exchanged, stories told, and going into service when you’re already laughing makes genuine smiles come so much more easily. I think people enjoy service that’s human like that.”
As opposed to the lean, mean service that hungry, thirsty waiters deliver? Hmm. Maybe you’ve got something there.
Madeleine Berenson is a freelance writer contracted by Larkspur Restaurant. Larkspur, located at the base of Vail Mountain, has been serving American classics with a fresh interpretation since 1999. Visit www.larkspurvail.com.