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WRITTEN BY GREG ATKINSON
|Food for the Crew
Yes, a restaurant's staff eats well, too
This is how its been at most of the places I've worked. In Friday Harbor, when I was chef at a small cafe, the entire crew sat down after service every night with bread and wine, and chicken or fish, and salad, or whatever we needed to use up before the next day's service. There were never more than six or seven of us and the meals were fairly intimate.
Mealtime was an opportunity to meet and go over the fine points of service, and as a chance to share news of our lives outside the restaurant. We worked and ate together like one big dysfunctional family. Sometimes one of the employees would bring a boyfriend or girlfriend to the family meal, and it was just like bringing home a date to meet the family, only worse. None of us was shy about asking probing personal questions. Some of us in fact were bold and rude. Still, a good time was generally had by all.
In his runaway best seller, "Kitchen Confidential," Anthony Bourdain describes the perfunctory family meals that were presented in the various restaurant kitchens where he worked in New York City. Crew chow in Bourdain's book ranged from the ordinary to the hideous. Most common was the ubiquitous chicken leg, noodles and salad. Worst was the awful thing called a raft, a mish-mash of solids strained out of the stockpot. Most restaurants discard this stuff, but Bourdain insists that at some places, this is all there is for the staff to eat.
When I went to New York a couple of years ago to spend some time as a guest cook in three different four-star restaurants, I saw plenty of that famous trinity of chicken, noodles, and salad. But I also saw roast beef, baked fish, sandwiches, hot dogs, all kinds of ordinary foods that would never have been served in the dining room, and all these foods were consumed with gusto by the hungry cooks and waiters. "We eat really good here," said Daniel Boulud's sous chef, as we served ourselves chicken legs, noodles and salad, and I had to agree. But the meals in New York's great French restaurants were not quite as interesting as the staff meals in France.
When I worked for a too-brief time at Moulin de Mougins in Provence, then four-star-rated by Michelin, crew chow gave me an intriguing glimpse into the stratified world of the French. Perhaps it was because my senses were heightened by the excitement of being in a foreign country, or perhaps it was because the food really was extraordinary, but the meals I had there were the most memorable crew meals of my life.
On my first afternoon at the restaurant, I was led into the dining room and seated at a table with a half-dozen well-dressed sophisticates who were introduced to me as the "direction," or management. I smiled weakly. I was uncomfortable with my French and unable to understand much of what was said.
We were presented with tiny plates of smoked salmon and I ate as politely as I could while the "direction" practiced obscure idioms in their brilliant native tongue and asked me very slowly if, since I lived Washington, did I live with the president. "No, no," one of them answered for me, "He's from the west where they've only just recently chased out the savages." No one spoke a word of English.
I sat quietly and allowed the smoked salmon to be exchanged for a neat packet of veal, tied with strings and stuffed with sausage. My glass was filled with a deep red wine. I struggled with the strings around my veal and glanced nervously at the others who managed to remove their strings with the same fluid ease with which they spoke. My strings wouldn't budge and my tongue would not form a single word in French.
The next day, after shucking two cases of live scallops, I ate with the cooks. We had lamb's brains in browned butter with capers. The meat was pale and soft, and not very appetizing, but the bread and cheese were abundant and so was the wine. Everyone ate quickly so there would be time for cards. The food was pushed aside and out came the deck. The cooks pounded the table with their fists as they lost and stood triumphant with chairs tumbling behind them when they won. I was incapable of following the games.
On the third day, I was assigned to work in the laboratoire, a prep kitchen in a separate building behind the main restaurant where all the basic foods were brought in and broken down before they went into the main kitchen. There, whole birds were eviscerated and plucked. Rabbits and deer were butchered. Fresh mushrooms and berries were made into duxelles and sorbets.
In charge of the lab was one of the few, honored "Master Chefs of France." He was in semi-retirement and worked at the restaurant, he said, "just to keep from rotting away." We spent the morning chopping huge bones on a stump outside the "laboratory," where he would later transform them first into rich broth and eventually into a rich concentrate known as demi-glace for use by the other chefs. By lunch time, the stump had been sprayed down with a garden hose and the bones were roasting with aromatic vegetables.
We ate at a bare table in an attic room from mismatched plates. With the tattered sleeves of his monogrammed chef's jacket pushed unceremoniously up to his elbow, the grandfatherly chef served spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce. We drank country wine from jelly jars and broke bread directly over the table without bread plates. There was no butter, no cheese and no pretense. "This, you must understand," he told me instructively in very plain, precise French, "is real food, simple food."
Made with beef from a steer he butchered himself, handmade pork sausage and fresh tomatoes, the sauce was seasoned unpretentiously with dried herbs, fresh ground pepper and a sprinkling of commercial chicken bouillon granules. It was the quintessential spaghetti sauce. A gentle wind came through the open windows from the herb garden outside and, more than at any other time since I had been in France, I felt at home. "This is good," I said. "It reminds me of home."
"Of course it does," the old man said as if he knew me, as if he knew my grandmother's kitchen with its peculiar smells and sounds. "It is real food." Without referring directly to the haute cuisine served in the dining room 50 meters from where we sat, the old master managed to imply that the food served there at hundreds of francs per plate was something less than real. So I came to France to learn the secrets of haute cuisine and learned instead what I had always known, that simple food is the best food.
"This is the way to live, isn't it?" he asked me.
"Yes sir, I think so," I said.
Most of the best family meals at restaurants are like the best family meals at home: simple, familiar foods served without a lot of fuss and fanfare. People in my crew often cook the traditional comfort foods they grew up with, and since they come from Laos, Mexico, Japan and the Phillipines, crew chow can be pretty interesting. Almost every meal features some kind of spicy condiment. Most often, we have something we call Yoko sauce. It's made with fresh jalapenos, shallots and soy sauce. Sometimes we have Phouvy sauce made with fresh bird chilies, or crushed red chilies with lime juice and soy sauce.
My favorite staff meal revolves around Jeff Taton's Chicken Adobo, with steamed rice and salad, and a generous splash of Yoko sauce or Phouvy sauce. Even after eating it two or three times a month for the last four years, this dish tastes as good to me as the spaghetti I ate in the south of France.
Greg Atkinson, Canlis executive chef, is the author of "In Season" (1997) and "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (1999) from Sasquatch Books.
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