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Family Meals

A staff that eats together, stays together. The tradition of family meals at three culinary hot spots.

From the view of any noteworthy restaurant’s dining room, the service staff appears calm, composed and serene. The food arrives to tables perfectly plated and each dish is described with precision. But take one step beyond the dining room floor into the kitchen and a tremendous amount of effort reveals itself. The relationship between kitchen and waitstaff is best described as a highly choreographed dance in which both partners must stay in concert — all within the constant constraint of time.

The environment working within a high-end, highly trafficked restaurant is a demanding one, and to best set up the staff for success each night, many partake in the tradition of “family meal.” At the same time every day, the entire staff—from front to back of house—sits down to eat a meal as a group that’s been specially prepared by one of their own. Sometimes the food simply provides fuel for long night ahead, but more often than not, it carries a component of personalization and experimentation.

The critically acclaimed qui, Gardner and Lenoir consider the family meal an important element of morale control, and each has its own distinctive way of carrying out the long-honored service industry tradition.

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qui

At qui, family meal is not only held in the same esteem as dinner service for paying guests, but it’s used to reinforce the establishment’s high standards set by internationally revered chef and proprietor Paul Qui.

“Our mission is to feed people well, so we believe that we should also feed each other well,” says Chef de Cuisine Jorge Hernandez. “We feel it’s important to sit down with your colleagues, pass food around, and enjoy each other’s company. That sense of conviviality is important to then be able to provide outstanding service to our guests.”

One of qui’s sous chefs takes the lead on organizing and executing family meal, planning out a week or two at a time. Qui family meals promote the same kind of mind and flavor expansion the award-winning restaurant is known for. In house “farm expert” and chef, Jessica Rupert, uses family meal as a means to experiment with new crops of vegetables, while Hernandez went so far as to find the time to make a time intensive, Japanese-influenced paella made with sushi rice on the restaurant’s opening day. So successful was the family meal recipe that an adapted version of it wound up on the regular menu.

The schedule needed to operate a restaurant is a grueling one, and at qui the first preparations begin at 8 am. The half hour the staff shares eating a meal side-by-side is a moment that marks mutual appreciation for all components of the operation.

“When service starts, the entire team has to give it everything they got. To have just 30 minutes of sitting down at a table with each other and taking our time to eat — we remember why we push so hard the rest of the time. We work hard to people can enjoy the food they eat. So when we enjoy family meal, we remember our purpose.”

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Gardner

Since its opening in 2014, Gardner has made waves for its menu focused around seasonal vegetables — a surprising concept born from the duo (Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart) behind Contigo’s modern and meat heavy ranch cuisine.

At the buzzworthy restaurant, all cooks share the responsibility of preparing family meal. One day it could be Chef de Cuisine Andrew Francisco, and on another, a specific line cook might be tasked with the job. “One of the goals of sharing a meal together is the opportunity for dining room staff and kitchen staff to interact in a way they normally wouldn’t during service,” says Roberto Ainslie, Gardner’s general manager. “Some of my favorite moments in restaurants have been watching a line of dining room staff shaking the hand of a line cook who’s just blown everyone away with their family meal offerings.”

With ingredients as fine as those used in Gardner’s innovative dishes, it’s important that none goes to waste. Every product brought within the restaurant’s four walls will find a place of existence, be it on the menu or in the family meal. “We have been serving a striped bass dish with take on bouillabaisse,” explains Ainslie, as an example. “Parts of the bass that we don’t use for the filets we serve to guests get prepared confit and served on another dish. But that still leaves the bones and heads, some of which ends up in the stock we eventually pour over the filet table-side, and some of it ends up as rich fish soups we eat together before service.”

The camaraderie of a family meal extends itself beyond the restaurant’s own staff, as well. When Gardner opened in the fall, fellow east side culinary stalwarts sent over family meals prepared by their own staffs to alleviate some of the pressure associated with a restaurant’s first tenuous days. “qui and Salt & Time sent us family meal as a way of saying congratulations on opening,” Ainslie says. “It’s a meaningful way to show respect to other restaurants that share an ethos about food and hospitality.”

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Lenoir

This 34-seat Bouldin Creek establishment is best known for its small, romantic atmosphere and locally-sourced prix-fixe menu which is divided into inventive “field,” “air,” “sea” and “dream” sections.

Founded in 2012 by Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher, Lenoir uses family meals as a way to quite literally force its staff to take a much-needed break. “Because a typical day is so busy, if given the choice of not sitting down, they would not sit down,” Duplechan says of his hard-working kitchen and waitstaff. “[Family meal] is about getting them out of the kitchen, having something that’s set and regimented every day for a little bit of a break. As soon as service begins, our guys don’t get one. So this is a way to give them a little bit of a window.”

Much like at an actual family’s dinner table, opting out is not an option. Duplechan says he himself did not grow up with a family tradition of catching up over a meal each night, so he’s careful to institute the routine in his restaurant. “I tell these guys that I prefer they’d talk about normal stuff like, ‘What did you do yesterday?’ or ‘How’s the house hunting going?’ for a moment, before going into service and get their ass kicked all night.”

Lenoir adds a competitive bent to its family meals: One person is in charge of an entire week, and at the end of the month, the staff votes on the most outstanding series of family meals. The award? A gift certificate to indulge his or herself at another restaurant in town. As far as family meal cuisine goes, Duplechan says “there’s nothing off limits” and it doesn’t have to be defined by the restaurant’s typical menu. From run of the mill stews to a grandmother’s fried chicken recipe, Lenoir, like its counterparts, uses its own interpretation of the family meal concept as a way to bond and give thanks to its staff.

Credits

Photography by Hayden Spears

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