There’s one thing every person in the world has in common — we all have to eat. Food is our common denominator, so sharing a meal is a way to bond with anyone, no matter how different they are from you.
Sharing food across cultures fosters understanding and deepens relationships. Sharing food between BOH and FOH at a restaurant does both, while also tempering the tension that sometimes forms between them during a busy service.
This long-standing tradition of restaurant staff eating a meal together is affectionately called “family meal”. The family meal is prepared by the restaurant’s chef or a junior member of the kitchen staff. It’s usually an exclusive affair — many family meals are entirely made up of dishes that guests can’t order.
You’re most likely to find family meals in full-service restaurants, though almost all restaurants have some semblance of this, whether it’s a discount on food or a free meal while working. These aren’t long, indulgent meals where everyone sits around chatting for hours, but even a quick 30-minute meal with the staff helps put everyone in the right mindset for a good service.
It’s a lovely sentiment, but in an industry known for its small profit margins, why do restaurants do this?
1. Show appreciation for the staff.
Working in restaurants is rewarding, but it’s also physically and mentally demanding. Few things are as comforting as a good meal. If your staff knows that you appreciate all their hard work, they’re more inclined to continue this hard work. Also, happy staff = happy guests.
2. Your staff is your family.
There are many studies that have shown the positive effects that sharing a meal with someone has on our brains. Sitting down and eating with someone signals something primal in us that says, “I can trust this person.” Family meals foster this sense of trust and camaraderie. It’s a time for the staff to relax, talk about what’s new on the menu, ask questions about service, or gossip about each other and guests.
During normal service, BOH and FOH can often be at odds, with servers trying to placate impatient guests by getting their food out quickly and chefs trying to make sure every plate that leaves the kitchen is perfect. A family meal is a great way to wipe the slate clean of any harsh words that may have been said the day before.
3. Test new menu ideas.
When a chef is cooking up a new recipe in their mind, but it’s not quite ready to reveal to the world, family meal is the perfect opportunity to debut it. Restaurant staff can be relied on for honest (sometimes brutal) criticism, so if there are any issues with the dish, they will be identified at family meal.
4. Cut down on food waste.
For many restaurants, family meal is a way to use up ingredients that would otherwise get thrown away. We’re not talking about dying veg and suspiciously old meat, just ingredients that for one reason or another aren’t going to be used for menu dishes. The kitchen gets together to see what’s available and then comes up with a creative, delicious way to feed the staff with it. It’s a great exercise in teamwork, creativity, and sustainable cooking.
5. Educate staff on ingredients or dishes.
Some restaurants serve staff regular menu items at family meals. This gives them firsthand understanding of what a dish tastes like, and they can learn more about how it’s prepared or where the ingredients are from. Would you rather have a server tell a guest a dish is great while rattling off ingredients, or would you rather have a server describe a dish they’re genuinely excited about because they just enjoyed it a few hours ago? Good servers are, by default, great actors, but it’s hard to fake the true excitement that comes from personal experience.
6. Young cooks can hone their skills.
Family meal is an opportunity for younger cooks to show off their skills or to develop new ones. In some kitchens, family meal is assigned to particular staff members, and in other kitchens, it’s a whole family affair, with everyone from the dishwasher to the chef pitching in. At one restaurant where I used to work, a dishwasher prepared a sauce from a family recipe, and everyone loved it so much the manager put it on the menu and promoted the dishwasher to a cooking position.
7. Celebrate and share cultures.
Restaurants in general, and restaurant kitchens in particular, are true melting pots. People love to share dishes they grew up with. Family meal is the only opportunity to serve ethnic dishes that don’t match a restaurant’s typical cuisine. For instance, I once worked at an Italian restaurant with a Chinese chef who served amazing dumplings and scallion pancakes. It’s something only restaurant staff will get to experience. Guests will never be lucky enough to taste it, because that’s a privilege that comes with donning an apron and working hard alongside your restaurant family to make every service a success.
If you’d like to enjoy a family meal, then come join the restaurant community. Wondering where to look for restaurant jobs? Check out Edizeven!