What Do These Five Local Restaurants Feed Their Staff For Lunch or Dinner?
A behind-the-scenes peek into the family meals that restaurant workers cook for themselves—from gourmet scraps to full-on feasts.
Whether it’s a plate of food eaten standing or squatting, or over a white-cloth covered dining table, almost every restaurant serves a staff meal, sometimes called family meal, for its employees. Prepared by the cooks and eaten by the entire staff, it’s often kitchen scraps and trimmings transformed into comfort food, the kind of stuff you might cook at home. Because, for many of the employees, the restaurant is home. Or, at least, one of them.
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams
A fresh and nourishing dinner prepared by your teammates. The chance to sit down for just 15 minutes. A moment to catch up and eat together. You’d think everyone would be eager to pull up a chair to family meal.
But they weren’t. It took months for family meal—at least sitting down for it—to gain traction in Peter Merriman’s restaurants. “Because people always have something to do. A cook always has something to do. A server always has something to do,” says executive chef Neil Murphy. “So we pay people to come in 15 to 20 minutes early.”
1. Quinoa and kekela farm greens salad. 2. A chocolate and strawberry cake ordered and never picked up becomes dessert for family meal. 3. Blackened ‘ahi fish tacos served with corn tortillas from big island mexican foods in hilo.
He tastes all the employee meals when he goes to the restaurants. “And if it’s crap, I lay into these guys: ‘What, you’re going to put this out? This is what you do for a living?’ I want a sauce. I want some garnish. I want salad. I want ladles, I want spoons. We went from hotel pans to platters; we went from people using their hands to using spoons.” Everything matters, he says. And the camaraderie formed at the table—the bond—even if it’s a small one, lays the foundation for something greater.
Duke’s serves two family meals a day—one for the breakfast and lunch crew, one for the evening crew. Each one feeds somewhere between 70 to 90 employees. So many that the restaurant can’t even keep track. The cooks prepare family meal while simultaneously cranking out hundreds of plates for the dining room.
“garlic balls”—made-from-scratch rolls pulled hot out of the oven and tossed with raw garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Whereas smaller restaurants with a staff of 15 or fewer can throw together family meal an hour before it’s served, Duke’s has to buy food specifically for family meal. Sometimes, family meal is dictated by what’s on sale—like the time crab legs were $3 a pound.
The week’s employee meal schedule is tacked to the wall. Monday’s theme is “Home Style,” with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn cobbettes, coleslaw and dinner rolls. Tuesday is Taco Tuesday. “You should have been here for Taco Tuesday!” everyone tells us. Everyone. Wednesday is labeled “Asian,” which this week is pastele stew. Thursday, the day we come, is Italian with veggie pasta, chicken alfredo, meat marinara with fried basil, and “garlic balls,” soft, garlicky puffs served hot from the oven. If this were my family meal, my plate would be all garlic balls.
Lobster mac ’n’ cheese. Duck ramen. Wagyu beef and broccoli. This is family meal at Chef Mavro. It’s made mostly with scraps: the ragged ends of the lobster tail that don’t look pretty on the plate; the duck carcasses and legs; the beef trimmings that are sacrificed to make perfect medallions.
1. If he’s not eating standing up in the kitchen, chef de cuisine jeremy shigekane sometimes picks this spot to eat, close to the fan, where it’s cooler. 2. Onaga collars with a ginger scallion sauce, to be garnished with nori and apples. 3. Chinese long bean salad with almonds.
Sundays, the kitchen goes all out with brunch: French toast stuffed with bananas, walnuts and sour cream. Pancakes with lemongrass and hibiscus berry compote.
“I don’t like to keep it straight,” says chef de cuisine Jeremy Shigekane. So he might use pomegranate molasses for the beef and broccoli instead of the usual stir fry sauce. “It’s a little more fun. Something for the guys to see so at least they can do something different from what we learn at the restaurant. I try to let them create whatever they want. But if it’s a little too off the wall and won’t taste good, then I’ll stop them. And then I’ll suggest something else. It’s a creative process.” But the bottom line: It has to taste good. Because you’re feeding family. A “dysfunctional family, maybe, but it’s family.”
Half an hour before dinner service at Town, the kitchen staff and front of house sit down together for family meal. “Fifteen minutes is just eating and bullshitting,” says chef Dave Caldiero. “The last 15 minutes is going over the food menu, the bartender talks about the cocktails, Brynn (Burbach, general manager) introduces new wines by the glass.”
It wasn’t always like this. Servers and cooks used to grab whatever they could in between service. “By the end of the shift, people were getting angry, trying to stuff bread in their mouths, anything to make it through service,” says Caldiero. “Now, it’s kind of nice. It’s really done wonders for camaraderie.”
Soup of ‘ahi scraps in a tomato-based broth with fennel and onion.
Family meals at Town are about getting creative with odds and ends from the restaurant service. Porchetta trimmings, fish scraps—lots and lots of fish scraps from all the whole fish Town brings in. When we arrive for family meal, there’s a soup of ‘ahi scraps in a tomato-based broth with fennel and onion.
One of sous chef Wilson Kondracki’s favorite family meals is Filet-o-Fish, Town style. The cooks take ‘ahi belly, panko-crusted and deep-fried, spread it with aioli or remoulade and sandwich it between ciabatta.
Fish kim chee soup is also served often for family meal, thanks to a regular who always brings in big jars of kim chee.
Line cook Wyeth Yogi is known for his “Frankenstein soups.” Once, he took three soups, leftover from previous nights’ dinner service, and mixed them all together. He said it worked out okay that time. Though no one exactly names those Frankenstein soups as their favorite family meal. Instead, they recall the time Yogi made salmon skin rolls—he seared salmon skin and laid out sushi rice, nori, carrot, cucumber and daikon for roll-your-own sushi.
And Yogi loves it when fish distributors or friends bring in fish, like menpachi or weke, and he fries it whole and serves it. Once, they got catfish from an aquaponics farm. He fileted it and fried it in a cornmeal batter.
So … when do we get to see that on the menu?
When we came in to photograph the family meal at Hunan Cuisine, we found Amy Hu and David Xiao, the wife and husband who run the restaurant, already sitting down and eating with a group of friends. The five of them were halfway through a bottle of Chinese white liquor and polishing off plates of sesame oil chicken, spicy tofu and pork, a pork hot pot, spicy fish, stir-fried chrysanthemum greens and yu shang eggplant (literally, “fish-fragrant,” but it’s actually cooked in a spicy garlic sauce).
Wait! You started without us, we said. Don’t worry, they said, we’ll eat again.
Again? After all that food?
Xiao went back into the kitchen to start cooking the next round: simmered pork belly, smoked duck, homestyle tofu and a hot and sour shredded potato dish that was somewhere between a stir fry and a salad. Hu says they usually cook four dishes to eat: two meat dishes, and one vegetarian and one soup or two vegetarian dishes. And there always seems to be a small dish of salted peanuts.
But who was going to eat all this food? Hu and Xiao sat down and started picking at it with their chopsticks. And, as if a dinner bell had been rung, more friends of Hu and Xiao appeared in the doorway of the restaurant and were invited to sit down and eat.
Who were all these people? One of them, who happened to be a professional Chinese translator, told us this: There are a lot of farmers in Wai‘anae originally from the Hunan province in China. They drive all the way down here to eat because it’s the only Hunan-style restaurant on the island.
And so, Hunan Cuisine feeds them. Family meal at Hunan Cuisine isn’t just for the employees (of which there are only two, anyway, the owners—Hu and Xiao). It’s for their friends, fellow immigrants from Hunan. This is their family.