It’s 3 p.m. and while most of the working class has scurried back into their offices or hit the road onto the next work site, another group is grabbing the first breath of fresh air since they punched the clock. Following the late lunch rush, restaurant staff finally has time to take a breather; they take opportunity to shove down anything that will hold them over until they punch out for the shift. That “anything” comes in the form of Family meal, the single most coveted five minutes in the work day. Whether you are a seasoned veteran or a freshman working in food service, you have had the pleasure of taking part in this one-of-a-kind dining experience.
Though it is ready to eat only an hour or two before dinner service, family meal (or just “Family” to the initiated restaurant staff) starts early in the morning. It usually begins after the morning sous chef has made his way through the walk-in cooler, with the less desirable of these ingredients forming the basis of the staff’s evening meal. Any items quick or easy to prepare, around out the early morning’s walk-in harvest. These items are then thrown on the line cook’s station with a barked, half thought out, and very informal recipe. Somehow, if he’s not swamped with prep for dinner service, the cook can string these random ingredients together to make what resembles a halfway appetizing meal. It has the presentation of the Thanksgiving dinner served at inner city soup kitchens-- and who knows how old the tomato sauce is, because it was never dated. Half- frustrated, half- desperate, he throws it into the window for the staff.

The servers are always first in line. Like seagulls at the beach, their ability to pounce on extra food at any given time is reminiscent of hyenas on the corpse of a buffalo. The chefs and line cooks get the scraps, partly because they know that it’s kitchen BS, though mostly because they just don’t have the time to get to the mess first. However, somewhere between stuffing their faces over the trash can and stressing out about not having the pommes purée ready before service, there’s a hint of relief, followed by pure joy.  This is freakin’ delicious.

I was a 16-year-old host at a mom-and-pop red sauce joint when I first discovered family meal. The “Cocineros” put together a dish of eggs, sausage, and noodles, which roughly translated into “something con juevos.” It looked like Alpo dog food, and yet, I loved every single bite. I only knew the conversational Spanish they taught at school, so I managed to get a simple thanks across while I sat and enjoyed my chow. They moved quickly, and all at once, I was again, by myself. The table was cleared, and the cooks were back behind the line. It was brief, but satisfying. I still think that this experience was one of a few instances that cultivated my love for the industry.
Family meal is an integral part of restaurant life. In its most basic function, it provides the only sustenance for the crew throughout the day. Without Family, line cooks and servers alike would be passed out, deprived mid dinner service. More importantly, the event gives back to those people who so passionately provide their customers with a meal that may even become a memory. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of providing another with the ingredients they need to sustain themselves; eating together is a bond that has been shared since the first man made a family. Family meal gives the same people that work for that bond, a chance to experience it as well. It transcends racial, social, and political boundaries. It is one of the only times the privileged front of house can sit (well, maybe not sit) and enjoy a brief conversation with the tattooed delinquent who works grill. It is when dishwashers are equal to chefs, and hostesses to managers. Somewhere between the fried chicken and overcooked pasta, this meal provides something more: this hodgepodge group of personalities that make up the restaurant’s personnel are, in fact, a family.
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