Five years ago, the term “staff meal” had absolutely nothing to do with late-night food and restaurant civilians weren’t privy to it. Nope, staff meal was (and 95% of the time still is) just exactly what it sounds like: a free pre- or post-shift meal prepared by a restaurant for its staff.
For obvious reasons, staff meal is humble and low budget, composed of inexpensive meats (lots of chicken thighs) plus a hodgepodge of kitchen leftovers and no-frills ingredients management doesn’t want to go to waste.
Sometimes one designated cook is in charge of it every single day, but just as often, a handful of cooks take turns sharing the responsibility. But, of course, the details of staff meal are as unique as the restaurants preparing them.
Ironically, staff meal may be the only decent meal a restaurant worker eats all day, and in many cases, it’s gulped down in a hurry — especially when it’s offered pre-shift.
So that relaxed scene in the movie No Reservations where the staff gathers around the table to drink wine and leisurely twirl their pasta before the evening gets underway? Pure fiction.
The movie did get one thing right, however, and that’s the sense of community and conviviality that staff meal often engenders. People who work side by side day in and day out sit down in the spirit of “let’s break bread together,” and an atmosphere bordering on familial is the result.
It’s not uncommon for pre-shift staff meals to also become informal meetings and gear-ups for the night ahead, when menu specials and other important information might be shared.
But the guy who takes staff meal to another level entirely is the guy who takes everything he does to another level entirely, and that’s Kevin Binkley, chef-owner of Binkley’s Restaurant in Cave Creek. I’ve sat in on and partaken of three staff meals at his namesake restaurant, each of them wholesome, appealing and delicious. No big surprise there.
What DOES boggle the mind is the mandatory meeting that takes place simultaneously, a freakishly fast-paced confab so rigorous it conjures Jeopardy, not The Waltons. Navel gazing and cell phone fiddling are both strictly verboten. This is serious stuff.
At 4 p.m., staff members gather in the dining room, grabbing plates of food set out on the bar, taking copies of the day’s menu and finding seats. Dining Room Manager Jeannie Hoffman begins the meeting by calling out the day’s date in a loud, let’s-get-down-to-business voice.
Many staff members, particularly the younger ones (who are never called busboys here), have been studying their menus before the meeting officially begins, trying to get a handle on the dizzying amount of information headed their way at warp speed. The atmosphere is quiet and focused.
The first order of business is discussing which ingredients and preparations are coming off or going on the menu. The progression is linear, beginning with the first course (soup amuse bouche), moving to other amuse bouche, then cold appetizers, hot appetizers, fish, meat and finally, dessert and cheese. The chef de partie (line cook) in charge of each particular area of production talks about his section of the menu, often describing every laborious step of a particular preparation. Everyone but the chefs themselves takes notes, putting down pens to shovel in a few bites of food when there’s time.
Binkley encourages questions, and there’s no lack of them. Where is Perigord? What’s a marionberry? Is the Ivory King Salmon still coming from Ketchikan? What’s the difference in texture between seared and poached fish? What is tapioca? What’s in the persimmon coulis?
Kevin jumps in often, launching into brief lessons on various types of radishes or mushrooms, describing how he removes the sinew from the ahi or defining and explaining papillote. Someone has googled Perigord on his cell phone (accepted cell phone use) and chimes in with an answer to an earlier question: an area noted for truffles, ducks, geese, foie gras and Bergerac wine, both white and red. Jeannie throws in a few more details about the landscape adding, “ It’s the land of Cinderella,” putting the region in an accessible cultural context. The most frequent question-asker is probably Kevin’s sister Jessica, one of the restaurant’s two captains. Both captains are women (no old-school patriarchy here) and both make sure they know the menu — and everything else about the place — absolutely cold.
The menu discussion, which generally takes at least 30 minutes and often 40, is followed by a mini-tutorial on wine, sometimes conducted by Amy (who does the wine-buying for both Binkley’s and Café Bink) and sometimes by one of the restaurant’s two wine stewards. Only one or two wines are tackled each day. On one occasion, it’s Beaujolais, which prompts a little background info on Burgundy and other grapes grown in the region. Amy explains that it’s the best value on the list and drinking perfectly now, adding that it’s not Nouveau-style, which launches another discussion about Nouveau. The burning question for everyone: with which foods does it pair well?
Now it’s Kevin’s turn to ask the questions. He quizzes the staff about everything that’s been covered so far, calling on people one by one just as a teacher might. What’s unique about trombocino squash? In what kind of wood is the sausage smoked? What’s the difference between Oregon black truffles and Perigord truffles? What’s an empanada, and is it fried or baked? What’s the difference between soft shell crab and blue crab? Where do we get our chevre (producer and town)? What’s a sweetbread? Name the four types of beet on the beet plate. How would you describe skate to a guest? What is foie gras and from whom do we buy it? Everyone does a remarkably good job, demonstrating the same grace under pressure they’ll probably be required to summon at least once or twice in the course of the evening.
But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and the next phase of the meeting focuses on service, protocol, duties, overall knowledge of the restaurant and management’s pet peeve of the week.
Protocol: How should the phone be answered? Everyone recites in chorus: Good evening. Thank you for calling Binkley’s.
Protocol: If a staffer and a guest are headed the same way and there’s little room to navigate, the staff member should say “after you.” If the guest encourages the staff member to go first, the staff member must decline again, but if the guest insists, the staff member should accept the offer (avoiding a standoff) and thank the guest.
Service: Drink orders should be delivered within five minutes. Let the wine steward know if guests want more extensive wine descriptions. Drivebys are good; don’t interrupt guests to ask how they’re doing. I’m so happy to hear this one. Is there anything more annoying than a server who stands there ’til you stop your conversation to blandly ask, “Is everything all right?”
Restaurant Knowledge: Kevin makes sure everyone knows which gallery the local art on the walls comes from (Bonner David Galleries) and where that gallery is (Scottsdale).
Duties: Jeannie encourages the staff to check the bathrooms occasionally and to make sure the edge of the toilet paper has been folded in a V.
End-of-the-meeting topics vary. In one meeting, Jeannie talks about each person knowing exactly what his/her job is, (she evens reads a job description), explaining that doing someone else’s job is never actually helpful. Sometimes, a managerial pet peeve is addressed. One of them is “no talking about anything but work during work.”
Next it’s time to discuss reservations and just exactly who’s coming in. Names and party sizes are mentioned as well as birthdays, special occasions and who will sit where. Staff members all seem to know the regulars. Notes are meticulously kept about who ate what and when so that nothing is ever duplicated. One of the dishwashers is coming in with his wife for an anniversary dinner. In an aside to me, Kevin says the staff will treat him like gold — as if I expected anything else!
As the meeting draws to a close, Jeannie asks everyone to stand up for a couple of minutes of calisthenics — some jumping jacks, some stretches — to get everyone pumped (but not actually sweaty) for the night ahead.
Staff meal ends on a high note as staffers rush to get their last-minute duties completed before the restaurant opens.
Kevin is proud of his staff meal-meetings and feels there aren’t many (if any) in the country that match his for thoroughness.
“If we’re not getting better, we’re getting worse,” he says, an attitude that goes a long way toward explaining why an evening at Binkley’s is always spectacular.