Eating Standing Up

Service Compris” is an article in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about the humble staff meal, as interpreted by the chefs at Per Se, the famous Thomas Keller eatery located in the Time Warner Center. The author, Randy Kennedy, tells us that the employee meal is a “hallowed restaurant tradition” when the people who “make and serve food for a living finally get to take a busman’s break and feed themselves.” As the beneficiary and victim of many staff meals over the years, I read the article with great interest. Complete with recipes, it’s cute and well written Manhattanite foodie p0rn.

P0rn? Hey, I’m not busting on Mr. Kennedy. He’s writing for the NY Times and I’m not. But when I read lines like, “Often the fascination was simply in seeing 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” I can’t help but thinking about the sweaty florid language used in Letters to Penthouse. For example….

“When I went over to repair Mrs. Jones’ Sub Zero she greeted me at the door, vacuumed, compressed, and barely recognizable in her leather corset and spiked heels. Slapping a wooden spoon against her full ripe thighs, she breathlessly explained that Mr. Jones was out shopping for organic artisanal bread. Pulling me inside she poutily asked if I’d help stir her yogurt sauce. It wasn’t long until my pot boiled over – if you know what I mean.”

Is it just me or can you hear the electric guitars twanging?

A wise man once said that a good restaurant makes everyone in it look just a little bit better than they actually are. Pornography performs the same function, making sex look more glamorous on film than it does in reality. By that same token food writers who fetishize foodstuffs and write fluff pieces about chefs often portray the restaurant industry as more glamorous than it really is. This is nothing new. Food and sex are both primal activities so it should come as no surprise that food writing shares similarities with erotic writing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the staff at Gourmet hones their skills by writing internet smut on the side.

Mr. Kennedy’s article is culinary erotica because it reinforces the romantic fantasies that foodies who buy newspapers often subscribe to. I wish all waiters got to dine on a “North African family meal of lamb and falafel” while sitting down in “the breezeway” uninterrupted by pesky things like customers. I’m sorry to burst everyone’s bubble — staff meals are NOT a “hallowed tradition” in the American restaurant industry. While many restaurants great and small treat their employees to tasty and delicious meals, there are many restaurants that couldn’t care less.

Mr. Kennedy glosses over this fact when he writes, “In America, the (staff) meals can take wildly different forms, too often that of warmed-over takeout…” Are you kidding me? Warmed over takeout? Many places don’t even have that! To bolster my point here’s a list of some of the stuff owners pull regarding that “hallowed tradition” we call the staff meal.

1. Don’t feed the staff at all. Fuck ‘em.

2. Don’t let the staff eat anything on the premises.

3. Don’t feed the staff but take a deduction for “providing employee meals” on their taxes.

4. Take money out of employee checks to cover cost of staff meals then don’t provide them or provide them sporadically – and still take a deduction.

5. Tell staff they can order food off the menu at half price, but restrict the employee’s food choices to items that will still yield a profit after the 50% discount.

6. Tell the staff they can’t bring in food from home or from another restaurant.

7. Feed the kitchen staff but not the waiters. (I’ve seen that quite a bit.)

8. Carbo load the staff with day old pasta, bread, and mashed potatoes but be stingy with expensive ingredients like protein and vegetables.

9. Don’t give employees time to sit down and eat like human beings. All waiters everywhere know the joys of eating standing up. (At least the article’s picture got that bit right.)

10. The owner stuffs his face in full view of the staff but begrudges his workers a piece of bread or a bowl of soup. When asked why he’s not providing food to his staff his reply is “These guys make too much money.” (I actually heard that once. There’s a special place in hell for those guys.)

Mr. Kennedy pops the money shot, however, when he says the “humble staff meal can provide a subtext for the kind of highly choreographed dinners, nine courses, that are the restaurant’s (Per Se’s) trademark.” That’s because how a restaurant treats its employees has a direct impact on the quality of service those employees provide. Thomas Keller is no fool. He knows from direct experience in the trenches that you can’t run a restaurant of Per Se’s caliber with hungry waiters and resentful cooks. Mr. Keller’s approach to staff meals is a combination of empathy and enlightened self interest. While many restaurateurs share his philosophy, many others do not. Restaurants operate on notoriously thin profit margins. Owners will squeeze out every cost savings they can in order to increase the bottom line – including skimping on staff meals. (Not to mention cutting back on the exterminator, failing to replace broken safety equipment, and buying substandard food products at big box stores. That kind of stuff will be in my book!)

Of course not everything written about restaurants can be a hard hitting expose. Restaurants, like p0rn, are in the illusion business — making every one look “just a little bit better than they actually are.” How can people have fun when they know how the magician does his tricks? How can people enjoy a skin flick when they discover that the flawless p0rn queen has a big red zit on her butt? I know fluffiness is the spirit in which Mr. Kennedy wrote this article. It’s all good. Cue the p0rn music and thanks for the falafel recipe!

OK, I’m done ranting here. I invite everyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant to share their staff meal stories, good and bad, in the comments section. That should make for some interesting reading.

28 thoughts on “Eating Standing Up”

  1. BethanytheMartian says:

    Heh, I’ve delivered pizza too much- I was thinking ‘staff meals?’

    Of course, I haven’t worked in any find dining establishment.

    But my most recent job was with a little in town pizza place, no big names. Last july a handful of us were working the fourth, and it was pretty slow that night (it was lovely, and people were using their grills). So my manager had brought in leftovers from his lunch earlier- grilled chicken, ribs, we made up some garlic bread to go with it and we all had some barbecue.

    We had a lot of that go on there, but that was the coolest meal we had. Other times he would bring in ground beef and make us taco pizzas and stuff.

    The worst was when I worked the buffet at another pizza place. All the cold, stale pizza you could stand! I never went home hungry, but the thought of ever eating pizza off a buffet again makes me feel vaguely nauseous.

  2. firefly says:

    I know this is an old posting, so I’m not even sure if my comment will be read, but here goes: Staff meal is of the 50% off variety where I work, and does not apply to all items. The owner half jokingly says, “Sure! I love to give away free food!” every time I approach him with the discount request. It makes me feel like a dirty beggar to ask him, even though the food I’m eating is in no way free. We waitstaffers of wee income often bring treats for all to snack on, some of us going as far as preparing home cooked goodness to bring for all to share. While members of management are usually one of the first to help themselves to our goodies, owner included, they of larger income and free meals have never provided anything for us. God forbid they catch us with a piece of bread in our mouths, or a bowl of soup we neglected to ring in. It’s unfortunate that this environment breeds such bitterness and petty complaints.

  3. Eli says:

    I know, I’m more than a year later commenting on this, but I’m going through the archives and thought I’d comment too.

    I’m not actually a waitress, but a part-time hostess in a big restaurant in a touristic part of town. It’s my first time working in a restaurant and I guess I’ve really landed a good gig because not only is my food free at the end of every shift, but the owner actually comes and ask me what I’d like and orders it for me so that it’s ready when I finish. We don’t get everything on menu, but we still have about 8 really good main dishes to choose from.
    Sometimes you get lucky, I guess. 🙂

  4. jess says:

    yeah you are lucky. as a waitress, i get 50% of of everything (just recently, as steaks were not allowed a discount before) while the kitchen staff (more of them than servers) get all of their food for free. ugh!

  5. Cate says:

    At the restaurant I used to work at, we originally got to select from certain dishes(aka side dishes and the kids menu). However, once the new management came in we started having “family style” meals at the beginning/end of each shift. The food was generally fine, with one exception: before the lunch shift, which started at 11. Since we were basically served the cheapest fried food on the menu (and it was a lunch/dinner place) we would be eating chicken fingers, fries, and fried seafood for breakfast. Trust me, not what you want to be eating at 10 am.

  6. The Manticore says:

    Oh god. I used to take care of the salad bar at a chain restaurant (if you’re curious, it’s on my myspace) and we didn’t even get half off. I forget exactly what it was, but I would sneak all kinds of salads and chips and croutons off the bar (mmm, we fried rye croutons everyday, and I swear, those were the best things everrrr). and whenever we were frying a batch of mushrooms, I must have eaten about half of them. We did have a Sunday breakfast though. whoever opened that day got eggs or sausage or whatever the manager dragged in of his near expired leftovers. we did have very nice meals on holidays though, one was even a full out turkey roasted in the potato oven. oh oh and through their extreme grace and munificence the management let us have free drinks (pop and tea, no booze) whenever we wanted. hoooooray.

  7. Disney Slave says:

    As a wage slave (but primarily student) at Disney, they have probably the most stringent rules on food ever.

    1. No eating (or drinking) anything near the guests (this is probably kosher with all dining establishments)

    2. No purchasing anything with a uniform (or partial uniform) on.

    3. No giving away of food to the employees (only on the rarest of occasions… like working a 12 hour day and the only employee dining establishment is closed will the management consider giving you anything).

    4. The only times that we get food are on major holidays (christmas, easter, july 4th [and being agnostic helps take the sting out of the first 2]), but on those days… we feast like kings.

  8. Liz says:

    we had a great policy at the restaurant where I worked years ago. There were ten or so menu items you could have for free, one per shift. The rest of the menu was available at half price except for a couple of seafood items. On Saturdays the sous chef made a huge meal with a protein (marinated flank steak was a favorite) saffron rice, hot veggies and salad. No money was taken out of our checks and at least one saturday a month the staff meal was preceded by a mandatory wine tasting. I was floored by the number of waiters who griped about having to come in early. You’re getting a free education which you can use to increase your tips! Dumbasses.

  9. Shannon says:

    I worked at a large, non-chain restaurant in Lansing, MI whose staff was mainly comprised of college students. The only “Family Meal” we ate was purchased by us with a 50% discount. The managers were fond of reminding us that they had fired people for eating a piece of bread or roll that had not been paid for.

  10. S says:

    Shannon – sounds like you worked at a restaurant in Eastwood… I worked at one in there and our discount (both FOH and BOH) was 50% off of food up to $5. So if we ordered a $6 item we could get $3 off… if we ordered a $15 item we got $5 off. It was better than nothing, but we were only allowed to eat either after we were clocked out and out of uniform or if we were on a double shift we were allowed to eat while on the clock, but generally standing up or hiding in the DJ booth or in the back.
    And we constantly got threatened about “stealing food”. I once saw someone get fired for eating a freaking crouton. outrageous.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Where I work in Scotland, the chefs just cook up one big meal a day and give everyone part of it. Macaroni and cheese, lasagne, stew, fry up and so on. Cheap affair compared to the fine dining menu, but I’m not complaining since I’d rather have chips than foie gras.

    Only problem is the chef can sometimes be a bit of a dick. It’s their job to cook us staff dinner (I was a chef in the same place for a while, so I’d know). However, one night I didn’t ask for food, even though he’s supposed to ask us if we want it, and we got into a huge fight. Eventually I told him fuck it, I was just going to eat my own asshole.

    I got a nice, giant omlette out of it while everyone else got pasta. Nice.

  12. SFBartender says:

    I worked at an Asian fusion restaurant, with the most horrific owner imaginable-tip stealing and all.

    One night, there was a huge mistake and the kitchen packed a massive to-go order that was never picked up. Traditionally, misfires and mistakes of this nature are either a) plated, if salvagable, and given to customers “on the house,” as if the food was made for them, or b) eaten by the staff. Since we weren’t very busy, the food was put in the back, and we all were going to go grab a few bites as we went.

    The greedy, money grubbing bitch of an owner walks in, sees the food, then packs it all up and takes it home with her!!! I mean how cheap are you, seriously? This woman was making millions a month off her restaurants, and she’s gonna take one of the smallest joys away from the staff?

    I hate that woman. She’ll burn.

  13. Heather says:

    I worked at a hotel chain in their full service restaurant, and the rules when I started were ridiculous. We weren’t supposed to eat AT ALL when we were on shift, even if we paid full price, and actually weren’t supposed to come in to eat on our days off, either. Obviously, nothing was provided and we weren’t allowed to touch the daily buffet when it was taken down, even though it was going to be trashed. Thank God they eventually lightened up–but the best we got was a bunch of weekly specials that we could buy for $3 apiece, and it was all the cheap stuff (plain pasta with sauce, a burger and fries, etc). Never worked in a place that actually cooked meals for the staff; it would have been nice.

  14. lisa says:

    wow.i feel privileged. i work dietary in a hospital and we get a five dollar meal voucher for our meals. of course we usually go over but bosses don’t care too much since they do too.

  15. mike says:

    Great blog. I will be adding it to my google reader. It is seldom that you find good blogs that are as imformative as this.

  16. mike says:

    Great blog. I will be adding it to my google reader. It is seldom that you find good blogs that are as imformative as this.

  17. DM says:

    I worked at a 5 star hotel as a concierge in the UK,and lemmie tell you,it was great fun!
    i mostly worked day shifts,but the staff int he kitchens were great (save for one total dick head I nearly hit in front of a manager) they made a full on staff meal,like a full on buffet with several choices of meals,and you could just go help yourself,it wasn’t deducted out of paychecks or anything,it was really good.
    Personally I never ate in the canteen though,was always too crowded,I typically bought my own stuff and ate down by the river quietly.
    Only problem was though,all the polish cleaners and staff would get there before anyone else could and clear the lot,so there was seldom anything left.

    Nightshift was a blast though,we basically had no rules,and if it was in the fridge and we could be bothered ot make it,we could eat it,same with the drinks,of course no alcohol on the job.
    Hell I even disappeared for 2 hours and fell asleep in the bar area! lol
    Not only that,we were being paid something crazy like near on 14 bucks an hour!

    …………why DID I leave that job?………

  18. ErinM says:

    Back in my day it was a 50% situation for FOH, free for BOH (as long as you cooked it yourself). I worked both, at one time or another, and I loved being able to make whatever I wanted in the back. But when servers ordered their food, they had to change shirts, sit in a booth and be waited on by the shift closer, so your 50% discount basically went to tipping your buddy for taking your order.

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  20. J says:

    Wow, I wish I had anything near as nice of a setup as what most people are smashing on here. The restaurant I work in has very set rules for food: we don’t get anything for free, we do get a “discount” of 4 dollars on anything over 8 dollars (our entrees average around 20 dollars a pop, though we do have a couple sandwiches for 10 dollars, but they usually won’t discount those), we have to eat in back and bringing your own food in is frowned upon. As far as any food that was made by accident, the managers got first dibs and if they didn’t want it then it was thrown away, none of us could have it and of course the managers got a free meal of their choice every shift (and the GM gets all his meals free). As for “stealing” food like soup, one server who got caught had to throw away what he had left, pay for a whole bowl and was told if he ever did it again the cops would be called on him. so I would say I would love to get some “crappy” food every night.

  21. MoreAndAgain says:

    I’ve worked in four restaurants. The first had the nerve to not even do staff meals, and it was a corporate owned/run restaurant. The second didn’t do staff meals, but you could order anything off the menu as long as it was just chicken (I spent many weeks alternating between chicken sambucco, chicken franchese, and chicken parmesan). The third restaurant I worked at was pretty good about letting us order anything off the menu, as long as it wasn’t an entree. But, the last place I went to (which I worked at the longest) had a family meal I dreaded everyday. Everyday it was chicken wings thrown in a big pot of rice and boiled. I had to BEG the cooks to sneak me some string beans so I wouldn’t pass out (because I never ate the rice). Anytime we did get something that wasn’t the lazy man’s arroz con pollo it wasn’t necessarily exciting because it was just the left over food from the party that took place the night before. If we ordered our own food, we only got a lousy 12% discount, and then don’t expect to eat it in the restaurant (even if you were off for the day), because God forbid anyone of the staff actually sits down.

  22. Nanashi says:

    Let’s see. When I was a dishwasher, I was the only one with a free meal, but paid the worst and no tips. Everyone was entitled to a single free beer, but I can’t stand beer, so they let me have a free vodka malt drink (Skyy Blue until we ran out. I finished off the stock). Everyone else got 50% food, working or not.

    As a barista, we were allowed as much free food and non-energy drinks as we wanted. Expensive desserts were off-limits. But that was ok. And a half hour break on any 6+ hour shift to munch. We had a crazy baker who half the time would make too much, so *somebody* needed to make all the food not go to waste!

    My husband works pizza delivery, and his current place gives him free food on shift, an employee discount the rest of the time, and lets him bring enough food home for me at half price, or free if he hasn’t eaten on shift.

  23. HospitalityInstructor says:

    Staff meal is a big part of my memories from my favorite past restaurant employer, a small modern Mediterranean restaurant with a really tightly knit staff and wonderful (if thrifty) owners. We only held staff meal once a week which worked out great since most of us servers and bartenders were also students or held other jobs Monday through Friday. We were closed for lunch on Saturdays and at about 3p, we would all meet at the restaurant for a staff meal. It was such an awesome gathering that those of us who were off that night would often still make an appearance to chow down and break bread with our team. Possibly the greatest impact it had stemmed from the fact that both FOH and BOH shared in this meal each week which definitely brought us closer as a restaurant than any other place I have ever worked. Kitchen crew and servers sharing a meal. Who knew it was so simple to bridge that gap?

  24. Em says:

    I’ve worked for people of every level in the restaurant industry, from jerks who scream profanities at the staff to people who genuinely care about their staff. The latter was in a bakery setting and one year the owners bought the whole staff lunch every day for the crazy, busy week before Christmas. Pizza, ribs, sub sandwiches and on Christmas eve we all (owners included) shared a bottle of wine before going home. They also paid overtime, plus gave us all cash bonuses and all of the leftover fresh bread and cookies we could carry. I’v known the jerks but these two owners make up for any assholes I will meet along this road of employment.

  25. abby says:

    I’ve worked in several restaurants, the first had a select menu where we could order a select items for a certain price. The 2nd we got a 50% discount on nights we worked at the end of our shift as long as we ordered before the kitchen guys started cleaning up (understandable). The 3rd restaurant was pretty much the same as the 2nd and both of those pretty much frowned on bringing in outside food. The place I’m at now is a chain steakhouse that is a chain but owned by individual proprietors who set the rules. The proprietor at the one I work at is a bit of a dick so the rules kinda suck. We aren’t allowed to order before we leave and take food home. If we get cut earlier than 1 1/2 hours before the kitchen closes and we have street clothes we are allowed to sit and eat w/ 50% off and you have to tip the server who takes care of you 20% of the original cost before the discount. However if you are a closing server or the head wait for that night you get a free meal. Also if you are training new staff you and that new staff member get a free dinner.

  26. cammie says:

    Love the blog, been reading through the archives!

    I am a chef now, but have worked in food service for 8 years, in every position imaginable. I’ve had some pretty good experiences with staff meals. When I was a hostess the place gave me a selection of a few things off the menu I could order at the end of my shift to take home with me. Mainly sandwiches and things but it was a welcome treat to my hungry belly. As a waitress there was usually a staff meal before my shift or, if it was slow we could ask the cooks to whip us up something to eat in the back. As a chef now I’ve prepared many a staff meal, generally a stir fry with a salad but on days when there was a big game on we made burgers or wings. it was nice to sit down with everyone and share a meal before a hectic night began.

    I feel sorry for anyone who has had a bad experience with food at a restaurant the work at. The place serves food! Stop being so stingy, I know there’s leftovers you an whip up!

  27. aaron s. says:

    I’ve had it both ways. I’ve worked in a fun environment where we had 50% off of everything and the management used common sense to temper rules (like when and where to eat). if it’s 3:00 and you have one table, sure, you can eat out of view of the guest. But I’ve also worked where the managers lacked all common sense and empathy, would eat in full view of guests and free, all while begrudging their servers if they simply tried to take a bite of a nutrition bar out of view of customers during a slow time.

  28. Sincerely, The Waitress says:

    Where I work, if you start at 5 or earlier you’re entitled to a paid meal break and the kitchen is good to us. Staff meals are generally all the same, but it’s cooked fresh and good, like risotto or stew. The kitchen knows we’ll be working well into the morning, so the last chef on makes sandwiches before he closes.
    Even if you start later than five, if you come in before you start and have enough time to eat, the kitchen will make you dinner. We also get free soda and coffee.
    The best was on Christmas Eve. Three chefs stayed after the kitchen had closed and we all made dinner together; steak and chicken and fish and potatoes and salads, and the owners bought us a few bottles of wine and decorated the function room for us.
    The kitchen also often makes up the last of the fries or roast potatoes when they’re closing and gives them to the FOH so we can snack.
    My place treats its staff really well, compared to some other things I’ve seen.

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