2pm—the golden time which marks the end of a typical lunch service back when I used to work in the kitchen. By then, my morning caffeine and the hectic afternoon adrenaline would have worn off, and my tummy would be crying out in search for food. The moment our restaurant closes its doors, I would probe my head into the hot kitchen with only one question to my fellow Commis Chef, “Is staff meal ready?”
By far the most exclusive meal in the restaurant (yes, that’s right, no money can buy it), staff meals—also commonly known as family meals—-is a daily ritual that happens late afternoon before the start of dinner service.
In this fast-paced industry, where hours are long with fraught working conditions, time set aside for staff meal is a welcome respite which allows everyone to slow down even if it is just for an hour. Often, this short window of break helps in relieving stress and fatigue built up during lunch, refreshing restaurant staff before the onslaught of the evening battle.
“We have a very small team here, so there’s no restriction on what the team wants to eat. Our staff can have anything on the menu. But most of the time, our staff prefer a hearty and substantial meal as compared to a fancy one,” says Chef Govinda Rajan, chef-owner of Mr. Biryani. “It is good for them [the service staff] to try different things on the menu as it helps them recommend dishes to first-timers of Mr. Biryani.”
For Chef Govinda, staff meals help cement the sense of community, fostering a common bond between his employees. “We might be an Indian restaurant, but our kitchen and service team consist of Indian nationals, Malaysians and a Chinese. Traditional Indian dishes like dhal aside, our chefs also occasionally prepare fried rice or hawker-inspired delicacies to cater to everyone’s preference.”
Chef Dylan Ong, Executive Chef and co-owner of The Masses, agrees with the feel-good factor of having a communal meal. In his opinion, good food equates to good mood and more often than not, it is also reflective of a good service thereafter.
“No matter how busy we are or how much mise en place we have, I always insist for the team to stop and take a break. No one will be able to operate on empty fuel. By eating well, I believe that the team works better too,” Chef Dylan mentioned.
The practice of providing staff meals is not merely about refuelling restaurant employees. Coming together for a meal not only forges kinship, it can also provide a window of communication amidst a busy day. It’s usually this period that the floor and kitchen staff have the opportunity to come together to reflect on their previous service and learn from past mistakes.
“There might be a hierarchy in the kitchen, and sometimes during service, the situation in the kitchen does get a bit nasty. But at the end of the day, we are a team that is working towards the same goal. It is usually this time where we throw our misunderstanding and differences aside just to eat, talk and have a good time,” Chef Dylan added.
When asked about his most unforgettable staff meal, Chef Dylan shared a memory of a meal prepared by a junior chef. “As a mentor, a good meal is not about how great the ingredients are. We are not blown away by the use of fancy produce but are more comforted to see the growth of a young chef through the food he/she prepares. We can easily tell if the chef puts in their heart in the cooking or not.”
“When I first started as an apprentice, I was sweating buckets when I was arrowed to prepare our family meal as it felt like a test of my skills and culinary knowledge. Well, it started quite bad, but my mentors were constantly encouraging me and that greatly boosted my confidence. Ultimately, I started to enjoy the process. Now, I try to get as inventive and experiential with our meals to showcase what I can bring to the table,” said Chef Jared of The Masses with a smile.
Like most restaurants in Singapore, The Nomads, a modern Central Asian restaurant located in CBD, also practices the egalitarian approach when it comes to the preparation of family meals. From a Kitchen Apprentice to the Sous Chef—no matter your position in the kitchen—everyone will ultimately have a chance to prepare meals for the ‘family’.
“When we get busy, the junior chefs are usually the ones arrowed to prepare our meals. It’s not a deliberate attempt to sabotage them, but it’s more of an opportunity for them to hone their culinary skills. There are times where we even get inspired by their techniques and usage of the ingredients,” explains Chef Nurul Ain Malek from The Nomads.
According to Chef Nurul, her kitchen team frequently receive exotic ingredients imported from the areas along The Silk Road. It is often a challenge cooking with such produce, and staff meals make for an excellent chance for experimentation.
“We tend to experiment with the ingredients which we are unfamiliar with and use different cooking techniques to prepare them for staff meals. After cooking, the team will come together to taste and decide on the best way in which we should serve them to our diners. As a team, it strengthens our gastronomic knowledge and helps us in growing our skills collaboratively,” says Chef Nurul.
Chef Tan Yik Dong of The Salted Plum agrees. “Our boss is very flexible when it comes to our meals. We have a separate budget for staff meals, so all the chefs here usually make use of this to buy seasonal ingredients to experiment with different cooking methods. We might be a Taiwanese bistro, but we try to prepare other cuisines for our meals as well. This way, not only can we develop new menu items, but we can also share our knowledge since most of us have different cooking backgrounds.”
Despite having additional budget allocated for their family meals, it is heartening to see that almost all restaurants in Singapore are working towards a zero-waste initiative. Instead of discarding unused parts of an ingredient, restaurants make use of the products they have on hand to create new dishes for family meals. “We try to waste as little as possible. You will be surprised by how delicious leftovers can be,” Chef Tan added.
Be it a serving of claypot rice or a buffet of random leftovers, one can never underestimate the importance of staff meals in a restaurant. More often than not, it is usually the only meal both the kitchen and service staff have during the entirety of their 12-hour shift.
Behind the glamour of flaring flames and exquisitely plated dishes lies the comfort of a humble meal and those precious two to three hours of rest. To a chef, a server and a sommelier these are usually all that matters.