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.
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.
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.”