Chef’s table

Make-do cuisine or pasta for dinner? Must be what the staff is eating tonight.

By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 29, 2009

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They work hard to feed you. But what do chefs, servers, bussers, and dishwashers eat to fuel themselves for their shifts? Often that sustenance comes in the form of staff meal, also known as family meal, dishes prepared solely for those who work in the restaurant.

“People are really appreciative when staff meal is good,’’ says Michael Scelfo, chef at Temple Bar in Cambridge. “It’s a long day and long hours. It’s nice for everybody to sit down and eat together. In some ways, that’s more important than the actual meal itself.’’

The food isn’t anything fancy, nothing you’re likely to find on the menu. Because the meal is usually free, it must be cost-effective, making use of inexpensive starches and leftover bits of meat, fish, or vegetables. It is, in fact, the way more people are trying to cook today, deep in a recession. Nothing goes to waste.

“We use up whatever,’’ says Justin Melnick, executive chef at Tomasso Trattoria. “Not scraps, but for lack of a better term whatever kinds of odds and ends we’re not able to sell. When we butcher meat, we take the pieces we can’t use - whatever inexpensive things we can put together.’’

Tomasso’s staff meal can be anything from pasta with meatballs and salad to rice and beans, he says. There are a lot of Brazilians working at the Southborough restaurant, so sometimes they’ll prepare a native dish. The greens from beets might be turned into a salad. “There are a lot of potatoes, a lot of starches,’’ he says. “Every day I assign one of my cooks to be in charge. They have to turn something that’s potentially trash into something people get excited about having.’’

Sometimes that happens at staff meals. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“I’ve been really lucky,’’ says Rachel Klein, the chef at Aura. “Places I’ve been at have actually cared. Still, there are moments where there’s not much to work with. Pasta again. Oh, pasta again. Pasta with garlic and olive oil, great.’’ Aura doesn’t offer family meal because it’s in the Seaport Hotel, which has a staff cafeteria. Still, Klein tries to cook for her restaurant staff every couple of months. “It’s one of those things I miss because staff meal is so nice: We’re not all serious and focused right now. Let’s relax and have some food.’’

Jamie Bissonnette, the chef at Toro, admits to having produced some abysmal offerings in his time. “I used to do some pretty questionable staff meals,’’ he says. “I’ve taken the raft from consomme’’ - the stuff that floats to the top of the pot - “and baked it into meatloaf. I bought from [foodservice distributor] Paul Marks a bag of cooked chili and a bag of clam chowder for staff meal and inadvertently put them in the same pot. I called it Jamie B.’s world famous chili chowder.’’

The staff hated it. So the following day Bissonnette took the leftovers and made them into lasagna, baked with flour tortillas and cheddar. “The staff said, ‘This is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had,’ ’’ he says. “I sing a song when I cook staff meal. It goes, ‘Once, twice, three times a staff meal.’ If you don’t finish it, you’re going to probably eat it again the next day.’’ (Lionel Richie would be so proud.)

Now he follows a rule laid out by Toro sous chef Mike Smith. “The best rule to have good staff meal is: Put cheese on it, bake it, and name it,’’ Bissonnette says. “Oftentimes the word ‘surprise’ is in it. ‘Cream of lunch’ is a frequently used term.’’ Asian rice with lap cheong sausage is another popular offering at the South End restaurant, as is just about anything that can serve as a vehicle for the hot sauce sriracha.

At Temple Bar, offerings have included sous chef Greg Boschetti’s chicken stir-fry, baked ziti, roasted chicken with macaroni and cheese and creamed spinach, and curried chicken salad. “Comfort food usually wins,’’ Scelfo says.

Eric Gburski, the executive chef and general manager at East Coast Grill in Cambridge, concurs: “The comfort things get people the most excited. They love burger day; we do nice big fat cheeseburgers. Barbecue, soups, a nice tomato sauce with ziti and cheese, macaroni and cheese.’’ They’ll repurpose leftover spit-roasted chicken into tacos, and occasionally even deep-fry a turkey or roast some beef to serve with mashed potatoes and gravy. “We try to be creative with our staff meal and make it fun,’’ he says.

Offering a good meal is simply good business, Gburski says. “We’ve found if you treat your people right, they treat you right.’’

“Would you send an army to fight on an empty stomach?’’ says Rudy Maniscalco, general manager of Temple Bar. “You’ve got to keep the staff as happy and content as possible if you want it to perform for you.’’

It’s also good for morale. “Because of the nature of the job, we’re usually inhaling staff meal in half-cold, intermittent bites while standing up in the kitchen, which is kind of a depressing way to eat,’’ says Kirsten Amann, a waitress at Toro who also does restaurant PR. “It’s comforting that our chef takes the extra time to make sure the food is delicious and that there’s enough to feed everybody.’’

“When people are doing really bad staff meals, it’s a big morale thing,’’ says Anthony Mazzotta, chef at Sasso in the Back Bay. “I’m not their mother and it’s not my job to feed them, but starting off on a good foot starts everything off well. I don’t want my cooks getting sick. I was there when I was young and working in New York. I was poor. We relied on staff meals.’’

Mazzotta says they try to mix things up at Sasso. Recently he took leftover pieces from a large striper and made striper fritters with coconut yogurt. Bolognese, tacos, salmon stir-fry, and burgers are other dishes the staff might eat. During Lent, there were veggie burgers. Friday is hot dog day: It’s an easy meal on a day that involves a lot of prep work. Pizza is also popular. “Nobody hates pizza,’’ Mazzotta says.

Just as eating together at home is good for the family, it also brings a restaurant’s staff together. “It’s a very good idea for the staff to sit and have dinner or lunch,’’ says Chung Yan, the husband of a Peach Farm employee, who often lends the Chinatown restaurant his English services. “They can sit down and talk about what happened during the day, whatever’s funny.’’

At Peach Farm, he says, there are two different dishes each day, and sometimes a soup. Beef with tomato, chopped pork steamed with soy sauce, pan-fried salmon with ginger and soy sauce, and watercress and pork soup are among the dishes served. If you’ve ever walked past the staff eating in a Chinese restaurant and coveted the food on their table, you’re not alone. “Once in a while we have requests from customers,’’ Yan says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, what is that?’ If the boss is around he will answer and say, ‘Would you like to try?’ Then he will give the customer a small dish.’’

Family meal can also serve as a training ground. On Boylston Street, L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre share a kitchen, which means feeding 90 to 120 people every day. “We pretty much have to staff for it,’’ says Louis DiBiccari, chef at Sel de la Terre. “We carry one or two extra interns with staff meal in mind. What better way to learn about seasoning and cooking than to cook for chefs every day? We’re very comfortable with our opinions and happy to offer them. They learn at an accelerated pace that way; it’s a learning tool.’’

Dishes might include roast turkey, pork fried rice using bacon ends and other scraps, or a dish that recycles leftovers from the restaurant’s bakery. Focaccia becomes pizza; pastries are turned into bread pudding.

Perhaps no one in town has sampled more family meals than C.J. Husk of Island Creek Oysters (a.k.a. the Oyster Dude). In the course of making his deliveries, he says, he’s probably eaten the meals at about 30 different establishments.

“Staff meal is funny because in some places it’s competitive and people want to show what they can make, and sometimes it’s just like, OK, we have to eat so we’re just going to make something,’’ he says. “It can be really good. Sometimes it’s really bad. I’ll eat anything, so I usually think it’s really good.’’

About 63 percent of the time, he estimates, family meals are pasta. Some of his favorites: L’Espalier, because “they make the best pizza ever’’; Neptune Oyster, because the North End spot has a family feel and a small staff that’s easier to cook creatively for; and Craigie on Main, because the kitchen has high-quality leftover ingredients to work with.

At Craigie on Main in Cambridge, says chef Tony Maws, they’ll eat soup made from leftover fish once or twice a week, maybe a Thai-flavored version or an old-school chowder. There is plenty of pasta. Veal left after making stock can be turned into veal curry or Vietnamese fried veal, which “everyone flips out’’ for, Maws says. It’s floured, fried, and tossed with nuoc cham, chilies, scallions, and rice.

“I tell my staff that you can’t do what we do and cook two different ways: OK, I’m cooking staff meal, I’ll use one technique and old food or whatever, and cook another way for your guests,’’ he says. “I don’t care if it’s pasta with butter and parsley and chili flakes. Is the pasta cooked right, seasoned right? It has to be tasty. They’re cooking for me, they’re cooking for themselves.’’

In other words, the family meal can say as much about a restaurant as does the food it serves to paying guests.

“I don’t want to be too cliche,’’ Scelfo says, “but you can tell when someone cares and when they don’t. In this business, believe me, there are people who don’t, and kitchens that are just go go go. It comes through right away when effort is put forth. The people who are really passionate probably have the best staff meals.’’

Devra First can be reached at