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Originally published Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town

Eating on the job

James Chan has eaten dinner at Rover's in Seattle at least 100 times. He speaks eloquently, and in dulcet tones, of executive chef Thierry...

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Nancy Leson on KPLU

The Seattle Times restaurant critic's commentaries on food and restaurants can be heard

on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays. This week: Loud in a crowd — rude diners misbehavin'.

James Chan has eaten dinner at Rover's in Seattle at least 100 times. He speaks eloquently, and in dulcet tones, of executive chef Thierry Rautureau's menu degustation, notable for such signature indulgences as caviar, foie gras and Maine lobster.

Last week, in the elegant dining room, at a table set with white linen and Riedel crystal, Chan lifted a fork once again. There, the 48-year-old waiter joined a dozen co-workers who poured cans of Pepsi from a 12-pack and lit into plates piled high with deviled eggs, skillet-baked cornbread and crisp fried chicken, hot and juicy from a bountiful buffet in the kitchen. Four-star food? The staff at Rover's thinks so, though it's a far cry from what their customers are served.

Welcome to "family meal," a time-honored ritual played out at restaurants all over town. Whether it's a sit-down dinner or a wolfed-down snack, dining on the job is a daily perk for many restaurant employees whose job description — hours spent on their feet appeasing hungry customers — ensures that they work up an appetite of their own.

At Rover's, creative young cooks show off their chops by preparing dinner for their co-workers, and in the (relatively) quiet moments before show time, when the restaurant opens for patrons, the entire staff — from boss to busboy — sits down to eat, chat and gird themselves for the long night ahead.

They might be nibbling on family favorites like "hot wings," clipped from a flock of expensive Guinea fowl. Or bratwurst built with trim from the pig butchered to create chef de cuisine Adam Hoffman's prized charcuterie. Hoffman gladly gives his cooks free rein, special-ordering whatever "cost-effective ingredients" — whether it's pork butt or jalapenos — they may need to create a meal.

"They all have their own style," he says. Lead cook Andrew Taylor hails from Boston and, not incidentally, makes a mean chowder. Sous-chef Branden Karow's from the Midwest, and he's a meat-and-potatoes guy. Even the interns get into the act: Early this month, armed with coriander seeds and cardamom brought from home, Anitha Samuel, a Renton Technical College culinary student, wowed her newfound "family" with her home-style Madras curry.

Pride and inspiration

Sit-down meals like those served at Rover's are the classical ideal, but you won't see that luxury at Seattle's bustling Oceanaire Seafood Room. Here, on any given day, 40 crew members can be found eating on the fly. Family meal goes up at 4 p.m. during the lull between lunch and dinner shifts, when the staff lines up at the kitchen pass-through to grab a plate and a bite.

Before rising in the ranks at Oceanaire, executive chef Eric Donnelly regularly fed the working masses. "You're showing your skills to your colleagues. I was a line cook first and foremost, and I took pride in my family meal," he says. In 15 years spent working in Northwest restaurants, he's seen others who don't share that philosophy. He singles out the "job cooks" only in it for the paycheck, who grudgingly churn out "shaft meal" for the hired help. And he blasts a certain "four-star resort hotel" where a single cook was charged with feeding all the employees. "Talk about atrocities! It was a buffet of army slop, with a rack of rotating hot dogs that sat there all day."

At Oceanaire, Donnelly shares the task of cooking family meal with his kitchen crew. Together they treat employees to comfort foods like spaghetti Bolognese, tostadas, barbecued ribs or mac 'n' cheese: dishes you won't find on the restaurant menu. "Sometimes I bust it out a little and make a kick-ass salmon meal," he says. But when you hear his staff shouting "Woo-hoo!" he's likely made posole, a favorite among the many Latino workers in his kitchen and one he learned by watching his Oaxacan cooks in action. "The Mexicans say I make better posole than a Mexican."

Occasionally, a staff meal sparks an idea that translates into a menu special. "They'll make a mole for a chicken dish and I'll say, 'Why don't we do that with the shrimp, or the sturgeon?' " And they do.

Please feed the help!

Jordi Viladas, an avid sport fisherman, regularly serves sturgeon to the staff at his Italian restaurant, Café Lago. Steelhead, salmon, sturgeon — you name it, he catches it, cooks it and calls it family dinner. "What we don't eat fresh, we smoke," says Viladas, who insists that a well-fed staff is a happy staff. He remembers all too well those unhappy days when he was employed by folks who failed to feed their famished crew.

He tells tales about the boss' wife who busted him and another busboy for eating too many Goldfish crackers ("They had cases of them! We were starving!"). And he recalls the East Coast fern-bar that moved some "really nasty steaks." These were "the Friday night motivational meal for servers," after a week eating equally awful hamburgers. In college, he remembers the job where "I'd go into the kitchen after the cooks were gone and risk getting fired — or worse — to sneak food."

At Café Lago, his kitchen crew eats "whatever they want, as much as they want, whenever they want," because they work long hours and make less money than tipped staff, he explains. "If they want sea scallops or a big fat steak, they can have 'em." His service staff gets a complimentary salad and one of Seattle's best pizza and pasta dishes at shift's end. If servers want a "big fat steak," they can pay for one — at a discount.

Viladas laments the fact that he can't afford to offer his employees benefits like health care or a 401(k). But staff meal is a benefit he can afford. As the owner-chef, "I'm their surrogate parent, and part of being a parent is keeping them happy by feeding them."

A good meal goes a long way

Rover's Rautureau agrees. He was trained in France, where a generous family meal, with wine, is de rigueur. When he came to the U.S., he was shocked to find restaurants where the help got the short-shrift, or worse. "They're there for six, eight hours, working nonstop, and you don't feed them? You're asking for trouble. You're asking for people to steal from you." Rautureau is right. Having waited tables for the first half of my 30-year restaurant-centric career, I've seen, firsthand, the difference a meal makes.

I still remember the "staff infection" served at a seashore restaurant in New Jersey. There, the summer-vacationing hordes ate roast duck and phyllo-wrapped crab roulade. On a good day, my hard-working buddies and I were treated to frozen, store bought, ricotta-stuffed manicotti. Taking a busman's holiday, a pal of mine joined me there for brunch. "Look under the lettuce," our server whispered, dropping off my smoked fish platter. Hiding under the greenery was a second helping of lox courtesy of a fellow disgruntled employee.

I've worked at restaurants where we could order off the menu at deeply discounted prices, and others where we were lucky to get a small portion of pasta after pulling a double shift. I've seen my share of bartenders slipping chefs an after-work beer, and chefs returning the favor with a surreptitious seafood snack. But the job that I hold nearest and dearest was the one where no one ever had to "sneak" anything.

Like Rover's, it was a fine-dining destination: small, and exceedingly expensive, with high-priced ingredients and a deep wine cellar. After the dinner shift, the entire staff ordered off the menu. Then we'd sit down together to eat, sharing a bottle or two of fine wine and a warm sense of camaraderie.

It was there that I learned to taste the difference between a California chardonnay and a French white Burgundy, and where I tasted my first foie gras and caviar. Having eaten everything on the menu, when asked to recommend the Dungeness crab-stuffed papaya over the oysters with saffron cream sauce, or the beef Wellington over the rack of lamb, I was able to do so with authority. By feeding us so generously, our employers not only bought our meal, they bought our loyalty, our trust and, perhaps most importantly, a good vibe that was not lost on our customers.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

More columns at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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