When chef Erin O'Shea wanted to change her pork rib recipe at Percy Street Barbecue on South Street, the staff ate ribs every day for a week.
At Gilmore's Restaurant in West Chester, a young chef earned a permanent spot with the chicken he roasted for a staff meal. (It was so good, one waitress abandoned her vegetarian diet for a bite of that bird.)
And at the Four Seasons Hotel, when two Thai women cook their red curry chicken or pad Thai or papaya salad once a month, staff members carefully schedule their breaks for multiple trips to the hotel cafeteria.
Staff or "family" meals are a long-standing tradition at restaurants, providing not only nourishment and nurturing before long shifts, but also a practical use for leftovers, a chance to meet with staff, and an opportunity for young chefs to show off.
Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy, two chefs turned food writers who are researching a book, Restaurant Staff Meals (Running Press, 2012), trace the practice back to Roman times when cooks garrisoned along Hadrian's Wall in Britain fortified themselves before dishing up the troops' grub.
Of course, providing the time, talent, and raw materials to pull off a toothsome restaurant staff meal before the rush of evening service is discretionary. The scope and frequency of the meals are set by each restaurant owner.
And what's served at those meals is quite varied from place to place, often different from the menu - depending on the philosophy of the chef, and, sometimes, simply whose turn it is to cook.
At the Italian BYOB Radicchio Cafe, Fourth and Vine Streets, for instance, it's the carrot, beet, pear, and orange juice concoctions flowing from the Jack Lalanne Power Juicer that are the rave of staff meals.
While some restaurants employ unused portions of expensive meat, fish, and vegetables, others prepare the meal from scratch.
At Gilmore's, the staff eats in the back dining room an hour before the French-inspired place opens. For chef-owner Peter Gilmore, it's the only meal of the day.
"I want a good meal. No leftovers. I go to the market every morning and buy what looks good," said Gilmore, plating impeccably rounded crab cakes made with a shrimp-mousse base, sitting in a pool of lemon buerre blanc, flanked by golden saffron rice and crisp, green snow peas. He took his seat next to a new server, across the table from his pastry chef.
But basing a staff meal on what's left after the menu items are prepared is not necessarily a bad thing.
Fish cheeks and collars - prized in Asia as delightfully succulent - aren't widely appreciated in mainstream dining here. This didn't prevent Morimoto sushi chefs from roasting the cheeks and serving them with dashi mushroom broth finished with chili oil during a recent staff meal there. Likewise, the suckers that were sliced off the octopus tentacles featured on the sushi menu, when prepared with a spicy batter and fried, went like proverbial hotcakes.
"When you work with the best ingredients, you've got to use the scraps to your advantage," said Brad Spence, Amis' executive chef, who prepared a homey meat loaf for a recent staff meal.
Often the staff meal is an opportunity to test new recipes on discerning tasters, as with the recent perfection of the rib recipe at Percy Street.
"We tend to have a lot of protein at our disposal," explained Don Krell, manager of the Texas-style BBQ joint, just before biting into a carnitas taco fashioned by sous chef Paul Walchman from pork rib trimmings braised slowly in a mixture of cinnamon, orange and lime juices, and chipotle peppers.
When the staff sits down at table - and mouths are full - the room is generally calm, providing managers a chance to convey company news.
When Percy Street expanded its hours to include lunch last summer, having the entire staff sit down together became impractical. The meal was still laid out in the basement kitchen at four o'clock, but employees loaded up plates and retreated to their stations to eat.
"We learned quickly we were losing our chance for a captive audience," said O'Shea. Friday night staff meals are now taken in the function room, at a table "where we can tell them what they need to hear," O'Shea said.
Perhaps the most anticipated staff meals are those prepared by young chefs looking to display their culinary chops.
Newly minted Amis line cook Colin Clark rubbed his hands together excitedly and detailed his plan for slowly braised pork shoulder that would turn into "the best pulled pork sandwiches ever" when it was his day to head up the staff meal.
Some benefits of a staff meal - like a sense of camaraderie and the feeling of being cared for - are less tangible, unless of course you put them in food terms.
"The hour of TLC the staff meal affords everyone is like duck fat; it makes everything taste better," said Carroll, who has eaten her share of restaurant staff meals while researching her book.
One of the most humbly prepared, but widely renowned, staff meals in the city is cooked by two women from Thailand in the staff cafeteria of the Four Seasons Hotel.
"The beauty and authenticity of their food is obvious," said executive chef Rafael Gonzalez. But it's the care with which it is prepared that endears Suda Zevia and Sukanya Miller to the 400 employees who wait eagerly for monthly Thai days.
Zevia, hands together, bowing, explains that the secret to her pad Thai is dried sour tamarind. The tricks to this pair's much-loved red curry chicken are cooking white and sweet potatoes directly in the curry paste so they take on the flavor, and roasting the chicken pieces before adding them to the stew so they maintain their own identity.
"They've ruined other Thai food in the city for me," said purchasing agent Joel Goren. Miller gave Goren her recipe for Som Tum, a spicy green papaya salad typically sold as street food in Thailand, so he could make it for himself.
Staff loyalty is generally hard to measure, but Hunan chef Chris Foo can quantify it exactly. In March, the Ardmore restaurant had a small fire and closed for eight months. When Hunan reopened during the summer everything had changed - the menu, the decor, the atmosphere. Everything but the staff, that is.
All of Chinese descent - most have lived in China at some point in their lives - the staff takes all of its meals together: congee (rice porridge) with fermented eggs for breakfast; quick stir-fries in the late evening. Lunch is traditional Chinese soup made from turnips and the backbone of a pig or red braised meat stew; Foo's favorite seasonal sauteed pumpkin; and fresh hot chili peppers stuffed with pork and shrimp.
"Every employee came back," said Foo, "because we are effectively a family." Indeed, a family that eats together three times a day.
Chinese Red Braised Meat (Hong Shao Rou)
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 ounces Chinese rock sugar (or 2 tablespoons white sugar)
1 1/2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons red bean paste
2 bunches green onions (scallions), cleaned, roots removed and roughly chopped in 2-inch pieces
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic peeled
3 star anise
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1/4 cup Shaoxing cooking wine (see note)
1 1/2 cups pork or chicken stock
6 whole dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water
8 fried tofu puffs (see note)
1. Heat vegetable oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add sugar and stir until it melts and then slightly browns. Put the cubed pork in the pot, searing it with the caramelized sugar. Stir in red bean paste and cook for two minutes. Add scallions, ginger, garlic, star anise, soy sauce, wine, and stock to the pot. Cover the pot and simmer over low heat at least 90 minutes until meat is tender.
2. Add shiitake mushrooms and tofu puffs and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes more so the sauce reduces and the mushrooms and tofu take on some of the broth's flavor.
3. You can ladle the stew into bowls and serve at this juncture, but it is best to cool it and reheat and serve it the following day.
Note: Shaoxing cooking wine and fried tofu puffs are available at Asian markets.
Per serving (based on 6): 412 calories, 24 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 87 milligrams cholesterol, 564 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Thai Papaya Salad (Som Tum)
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1/2 round of palm sugar (or 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar)
1 clove garlic
1 Thai chili pepper (more if desired)
1 medium green cooking papaya, peeled and julienned
1 large carrot, peeled and julienned
1/2 cup ripe sweet grape tomatoes, cut in half
2 dozen fresh green beans, ends removed and cut in half
Lime juice to taste
Fish sauce to taste
Crushed peanuts to taste
1. Mash sugar, garlic, and chili to a paste. Continue to mash the mixture while slowly adding the papaya, carrot, tomatoes, and green beans in increments. The vegetables will release their juices and soften as they are mashed.
2. When all vegetables have been softened, season the salad to taste. Add lime juice to adjust the acidity and fish sauce to adjust the salt content.
3. Spinkle crushed peanuts over the top of the salad and serve at room temperature.
Note: This dish is traditionally made with a large mortar and pestle. If one is not available, you can use a wooden spoon and a high-sided wooden bowl to do the mashing, but take care not to spill the liquid that accumulates in the bottom of the bowl as it is integral to the salad.
Per serving (based on 8): 46 calories, 1 gram protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 12 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Orange-Infused Pork Carnitas Tacos
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 1/2 pounds pork shoulder
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup orange juice
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Juice of three limes
11/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 to 4 tablespoons chipotle in adobo sauce, pureed
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cut pork into 1/2-inch cubes, trimming large areas of fat from the pork, but leaving some for flavor.
2. Heat a Dutch oven or any other heavy-bottomed, oven-ready, lidded pot over medium-high heat, adding just enough oil to cover the bottom. Brown the pork in the pot, in small batches to create brown caramelized bits in the pan (these are known as "fond"). Take the pork out of the pan and set it aside. Deglaze the bottom of the pot with onions and garlic, sweating and seasoning them with salt. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot. Return the pork to the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover and place in the oven. Cook for three hours, stirring every hour.
3. When the pork is pull-apart tender, remove it to a bowl to cool slightly. Put the pot on the stove-top over medium heat and reduce the liquid by half. Once the pork has cooled for a few minutes, begin working the meat with either your hands or two forks, depending on how chunky or shredded you want it to be. Toss the pork with some of the reduced braising liquid and spread it on a baking tray.
4. Under a broiler, crisp the top layer of pork on the sheet tray. Serve the meat warm with soft tortillas and your favorite taco toppings.
Per serving (based on 8): 285 calories, 29 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 95 milligrams cholesterol, 295 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Amis Staff Meal Meat Loaf
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 large onion, minced fine, divided use
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups San Marzano tomatoes in their juice
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
1 egg, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 garlic clove, minced fine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons parsley, minced
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil.
2. To make the ketchup that will be used as a glaze for the meat loaf, sweat 1/2 cup minced onion in olive oil for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, sugar, and vinegar and reduce the mixture by half. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use a blender to puree the mixture and set aside.
3. Place 1/2 cup diced onion, beef, veal, pork, egg, bread crumbs, garlic, Parmesan, thyme, and parsley in a large mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste and, using your hands, thoroughly combine.
4. Turn the mixture out onto the lined baking sheet and shape it into a loaf approximately four inches wide and 10 inches long. Brush the top and sides of the loaf with 1/2 to 3/4 cup of homemade ketchup.
5. Bake for 60-70 minutes so that the loaf reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Let the loaf rest several minutes before slicing and serving it.
Per serving (based on 8): 514 calories, 37 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 155 milligrams cholesterol, 466 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.