Sunday, January 20, 2008

Family Meal

by The Foodist

The title refers to a term used by those in the food service industry to describe one of the few moments we have during prep and service to breathe, sit back for a minute and relax.

Most commonly when use this term, people who are not-in-the-know will look at me and say something like "Like your when your family comes in to eat?" or "Wait, your family comes to eat in the kitchen?"

So allow me to explain for anyone who's confused that family-meal is the name for the meal served by the kitchen staff for the restaurant staff. In most establishments it's leftovers from previous service gussied-up and laid out for the taking. There are a few higher end establishments that manage to work in a budget for their staff and order fresh material to make family meal , but this is rare.

Currently I am in the Advanced Cooking Techniques class in the Escoffier Room at the Culinary Institute of America. I''ve been assigned to the tournant station ("Tournant" at CIA is loosely translated as "the one who does what no one else does" or "the chefs guy Friday"). The main job of tournant in E-Room is to prepare the family meal. I have from 3 till 5 to get the job done, and it's not easy. I have to feed the kitchen staff of 19 students. I have to feed the Front of the House staff of 14 students. And I have to feed the management people(Another 6 mouths right there) and the Service Staff which on a good day is another 7 to 8 people. I have two hours to finish prepping, cook the food, and have it in the service window. With 30 minutes open to eat dinner if I'm late, I'm in trouble.

Please keep in mind that I'm not talking Hamburgers and Hot Dogs here folks. That stuff wont fly. I'm feeding 40 or so food-centered people, and I need to make them happy. There are few things in this world more disappointing to a cook than a lousy family meal.

Family meal needs to be taken seriously. It shows your skills. You must be resourceful and pay attention to detail and proper procedure at every turn. Its as though 30 or so food critics are going to dine with you tonight, and you need to make them happy. It's a such a big deal to some chefs it even shows up in their cookbooks. For example, Thomas Keller writes in "The French Laundry Cookbook" in a section called "The Importance of Staff Meal":

"Staff meal was the first about the fundamentals of cooking and how to work with by-products, using scraps to make something tasty, eye-appealing, and satisfying. But the message underlying was "Can you be passionate about cooking at this level? Staff meal. Only the staff sees it. If you can make great food for these people, create that habit, have that drive, that sincerity, and keep that with you and take it to another level in the staff meal, then someday you'll be a great chef. Maybe."

Those words alone show the importance, the strength in family meal. 2 hours to prepare, cook, and present a meal to the people who stand beside you,the people who pull you from the weeds, the people who pull your sauce off the stove when it boils up. These people are your family, fill their bellies with great food, make them happy, give them a moment of serenity in a world that is otherwise the embodiment of chaos.

1 comment:

Maryann said...

I'm right across the river from the CIA :) It's freezing here, isn't it?
Family meal...this has actually become my strong point. Creating something delicious from leftovers and pantry pickings is a value I picked up from my Italian grandparents. Nothing is ever thrown away. All gets used. My husband is in awe of the dishes that come out of the kitchen during these times.I've come to understand that this practice in my life has made me a better cook. A thinking cook with imagination. I bet they all love your food :)