For much of the week, 21 individuals choose to share a space that is smaller than the average American home. What do you get when you concentrate that much humanity in that small a space and turn up the heat? A semi-functional family of the best kind. Although no blood ties are shared, we’re like parents, uncles, visiting cousins and kids to each other. Most leave home eventually, but many come back to visit and some even move back in for a short spell or indefinitely. As in all families there are squabbles and teasing, but also celebrations and having each other’s back. In the restaurant there’s a loyalty and community greater than many groups of friends share. We fill in when someone is sick; work on days-off from other jobs to cover vacations; play music and plant gardens together; bake birthday cakes, attend weddings, and move sofas and boxes for each other. Many of these ties remain even with those who’ve moved on to other restaurants or new careers.
One of the benefits of working in this industry is having the option to eat at work, often on the house. In other restaurants I’ve heard this called “crew chow”, “staff meal”, “staff infection”, “shift meal”, or simply “dinner”. It’s usually thrown together out of bits of leftovers, often tossed with pasta to feed the masses. But we’ve always called it “family meal”, because that’s what it feels like. At the end of each shift, brunch or dinner, the servers gather plates, flatware and everyone’s favorite beverages and set the counter around the open kitchen while the cooks set out that day’s meal. Most of us sit down around the counter; some cooks prefer to keep cleaning, being used to eating standing up, but all contribute to the camaraderie of a shared meal.
Family meal is such an important part of our day here that it’s often the first thing discussed when the kitchen crew arrives to begin prepping. Sometimes it’s even planned days in advance. Special ingredients are picked up in the International District or ethnic markets on the way in. An overabundance of produce from a garden is brought in to share. It’s a time for the kitchen staff, or even the servers on occasion, to cook outside the Spanish box.
The occasional late-dining guest will inquire about ordering a plate of whatever the kitchen is arranging on platters after 11 pm. That’s how good it usually looks. But we spend most of our working days welcoming and taking care of guests. It’s why most of us are in this business. Although we’re usually happy to serve something special to a guest, we respectfully decline his request. Sorry folks, family meal is a time when we just take care of each other- and ourselves.