The staff that eats together …

Order up: Chefs at Savoy fine-dining restaurant display the shift’s “family meal.”

There are people who eat at Asheville’s finest restaurants every single night. These people are, of course, the workers who staff them: the servers, sommeliers, bussers, bartenders and hostesses who can’t duck out of a bustling dining room for a traditional lunch break.

Staff meal isn’t always a humble affair: At Frankie Bones, servers eat from the evening’s featured dishes. “There’s always a salad, appetizer, two or three entrees,” says Norris. “We plate them exactly how they’re going out to the guests. Sometimes it’s like a bunch of vultures going in for the kill.” When Xpresspaid a visit, swordfish vesuvio and blackened chicken alfredo were up for grabs.

Restaurant owners have devised various ways to get their crews fed—most corporate eateries use a 50 percent-off scheme that allows employees to dine on select items at just-north-of-wholesale prices (steak, lobster and other luxe entrees with thin profit margins are almost always excluded from the staff-approved list.) But the best restaurants still serve a communal meal at the start of shift, the so-called “family meal” that’s become a bit of a foodie fetish.

At Fig Bistro in Biltmore Village, co-owner Treavis Taylor helps prepare the family meal. At left, staffers dig in. “We typically don’t eat until after service, which means “we bring in snacks,” says server Dawn Treneman. “We’re here at 4:30 p.m., so by 10 p.m., we’re pretty ravenous.” Although Fig’s staffers typically eat in staggered shifts, Xpressfound them sitting down together for a meal of Caesar salad and macaroni with curried crumb crust and Swiss chard. “One of my favorite meals is the vegetable plate, because we always get vegetables in season,” Treneman says.

The revered chef Thomas Keller devoted an entire chapter in his French Laundry Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 1999) to “The Importance of Staff Meal,” declaring, “If you can make great food for these people … then someday you’ll be a great chef. Maybe.” Enticed by Keller’s characterization of the staff meal as a studio for courageous cookery, food writers have flocked to his kitchens to dine behind the swinging doors and chronicle how “ingredients were alchemized, how that same English cucumber, vacuumed, compressed and barely recognizable in a Sunday-night salad, became the dice in a fine, simple yogurt sauce Monday afternoon for a North African family meal of lamb and falafel.”

Minus the English cucumber, the lamb and the fawning New York Times reporter, it’s a scene that plays out daily in restaurants across the country. Although the table is sometimes set with takeout pizza or barely thawed burgers—culinary wit Anthony Bourdain dismisses those menus as “shaft meals”—front-of-the-house workers typically sup on simple dishes crafted from leftovers. Mac and cheese with mackerel. Italian-sausage meatloaf. But the camaraderie matters as much as the cuisine: Staff meal is where workers forge the alliances needed to make a dining room hum.

As Frankie Bones Restaurant and Lounge general manager Paul Norris says: “It’s always a good start to a shift.”

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One thought on “The staff that eats together …

  1. Trey

    Yes, feed the staff nightly in the hopes that they won’t rob you blind.

    Bit of advice… feed them well.

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