If you really want to know what a restaurant is all about, check out its family meal. Diners rarely witness this daily ritual, but how a place feeds its staff — whether they challenge younger cooks to make something that will impress their chefs, put out warmed-up leftovers, or just order a bunch of takeout Chinese — speaks volumes about the way they do business. With that in mind, we’re starting a new series, wherein Grub Street will head behind the pass to take a look at restaurants’ staff meals. First up: the NoMad.
“Welcome,” says Daniel Humm. The chef stands at the stairs of NoMad’s basement kitchen in a crisp linen apron. “You’re not here for me,” he says, multitasking a hearty handshake and back-pat combo before gesturing across the corridor.
Unlike restaurants that only serve dinner, the kitchen in the NoMad is responsible for covering breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the restaurant’s dining rooms, a variety of special events, and 24-hour room service for hotel guests, which means it never stops running. That makes family meal, the time when the staff comes together to quickly eat before service, a little tricky. For the most part, the meals happen at 10 a.m. (called lunch), then dinner at 4:15 sharp. Rare chronograph-rimmed Swiss Army dealers’ wall clocks, a gift to Humm from Victorinox, mark time throughout the kitchen. Some cooks get fed twice a day; for others, dinner is their first meal.
"We actually make everyone in the kitchen sign a piece of paper that says they’ve left the kitchen,” says general manager Jeffrey Tascarella of the importance of family meal. Work is fast-paced, and intense, so it’s important that cooks can step away from their mise en place, if only for a few minutes.
The meals themselves are often much more involved than the typical meals that get set out at other restaurants. "Our cooks are from all over,” Tascarella says. Everyone contributes, and staff meals typically extend way beyond beef chili or hot dog territories. Chef de cuisine Abram Bissell chimes in, "We’ll say, ‘go nuts and make the Malaysian food like your mom used to make.’”
When surveyed, the staff is hard-pressed to come up with the best family meal they’ve had since the restaurant opened last March. A memorable falafel meal is mentioned. Another favorite was shawarma, when cooks used sous-vide techniques to reverse engineer street meat. Japan Day, which featured fresh soba noodles and steamy chawanmushi, gets plenty of votes. “One day we had fresh gnocchi, too,” says a cook, almost dreamily. (Making enough gnocchi, shaping each dumpling by hand, for 100-plus people while simultaneously prepping for dinner service is a little like doing a Sudoku puzzle on a roller coaster.) Another day, an entire Korean breakfast spread was set out. “The morning guys tend to get competitive with the afternoon crew,” one cook confides.
On this day, Tascarella and events director Laura Wagstaff, front of the house people, have been challenged to cook dinner for the 120-person staff. The duo is planning pasta with a braised-short-rib Italian gravy, garlic bread, and salad. Thirty gallons of water need to be boiled for the pasta; the gravy will require about 45 pounds of short ribs and sausage; and the Lexan tub for the salad is two-feet high. "If someone drops the ball," Tascarella says, "we’ll just have to order 25 pizzas."
There are no problems, though, and dinner gets set out right on time. The staff lines up next to the kitchen’s posters of Mick Jagger and a sign that says "Make it Nice" (one of the first English phrases that the Swiss-born Humm learned). By the time the double-sided staff line reaches the toasted coconut-cream pie at the end of the pass, tellingly, the front of house tries to configure wedges onto their full plates, while the more economy-minded cooks just spoon cake and frosting into the tall plastic tumblers meant for water.
In the dining room, Otis Redding and mid-career Rolling Stones play as everyone sits for a few moments before the first reservations come in. There are no steely pep talks, rallies, or big announcements. Everyone eats a little, de-crumbs his or her place setting, and gets back to work.