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Come In, We're Closed

Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy

(London Times)

An assistant cook once told me that he was fired for eating a chicken Kiev. Hungry after a long shift, he was tucking in out back when the eagle-eyed restaurant manager tapped him on the shoulder and gave him his cards for stealing and cooking the leftover.

I'd also heard that staff meals in one famous TV chef's restaurant were an unremitting diet of fried eggs, so I asked a friend who works at a middle-range restaurant in South London what she is given. "Staff meals? Don't make me laugh," she scoffed. "If you're ravenous at the end of a five-hour evening serving up lovely food to other people, there's always the scrapings from the pans or the portions nobody ordered. I've been known to bolt down some linguine the customer didn't finish. You get what you can, where you can, in this business."

A new book, Come in, We're Closed, about what the staff get in some of the world's best restaurants, presents a dramatically different story. After all the prep work is done - but before the first customer walks through the doors of eateries such as The Fat Duck in Bray or Mugaritz in Spain - the dishwashers, cooks, waiters and managers sit round a table and enjoy a specially cooked meal from the kitchen for free. These meals provide an opportunity for the chefs to be innovative with ingredients that might otherwise be surplus to requirements: for instance, the book details a recipe of pork-neck soup with dates and barley, served at The Slanted Door in California, and another of beef heart - which apparently can taste and have the same consistency as hanger steak - and watermelon salad made at The Bristol in Chicago.

In addition to providing sustenance and testing ingenuity, staff meals foster team spirit, or at least that's the idea. To discover what they're actually like for myself, I approached several restaurants with a view to reviewing not what was being sold front of house, but what was served to the staff.

The first to agree was Chabrot, in Knightsbridge, London, albeit with a caveat. Chef de Cuisine, Thierry Laborde, insisted that if I were to share the staff's early lunch, I must first work in the kitchen.

When I turned up for my shift, two hours before it opened its doors to customers, my first surprise was the attire of the Michelin-starred chef, which from the waist down comprised shorts, red socks and loafers. He only wore conventional chef's whites from the kitchen counter up, as though he assumes no one will ever see his legs. "Of course it's important to feed the staff. I don't want them to faint," he said, adding with a hint of regret: "It 'as 'appened."

For a moment I wondered whether Laborde's concern was for the fallen employee or for the lost output, but he clearly cares for his team. He pointed to Dan, the Nepalese kitchen porter. "He's amazing. I love him. I think it's a shit job, but he just gets on with it. He deserves a good meal."

The French-style bistro entices smart diners with dishes such as stuffed cabbage with veal, chestnut foie gras and ceps, but the staff dish of the day was more prosaic: fillet of salmon, pasta and cherry tomatoes. I chopped tomatoes, boiled the pasta and seasoned the salmon with lemon zest. Once pan-fried and doused in white wine, it gave off a cloud of steam and flames. Thierry orders the ingredients in specially, he told me, while simultaneously deboning a small chicken. Letting the kitchen staff and front-of-house eat together, he added, was a way of breaking down a divide that can bedevil the catering business. Come in, We're Closed makes great play of the camaraderie that is forged through eating together and the opportunities created for honest communication, but as the staff later ploughed into the dish, like soldiers in a trench fuelling up before they go over the top, that conversation amounted to little more than "pass the pepper".

The food was just as swiftly hoovered up at The Cinnamon Club, the Indian restaurant in Westminster where I later helped to prepare the staff dinner.

I was, not unreasonably, expecting posh curry - the restaurant is frequented by David Cameron and Gordon Brown - but to my surprise I'd found myself helping to prepare a roast dinner of shoulder of veal with roasted carrots and sweet potatoes, seasoned with fresh rosemary. The Indian influence in this case seems to be the Raj, when the British introduced the sub-continent to roast beef, plum pudding and spotted dick. "We always have a roast on Saturday," Palahs Mitra, the sous-chef, explained.

The front-of-house staff come from all over the world, with the seeming exception of India. I sat between Yana from Russia and Sita from Nepal, who told me she has been working here for three years. "Knowing there's a meal waiting makes a big difference." The kitchen staff were too busy at this point to join in. Ronaldo, the pastry chef, was whipping up a toffee and ginger pudding for dessert. "We always have a pudding on Saturday. Last week I did a treacle tart."

A few of the restaurants in Come in, We're Closed make desserts for their staff meals too, although they seem to be a bit more elaborate: the strawberry vacherin - fresh fruit, whipped cream stacked between meringues - being a good example. The staff at Kimchee, a Korean restaurant in High Holborn, London, also got a dessert on the evening I visited, but it was the source of some confusion for Girish, one of the waiters. "He's eating the noodles with the pancakes," Emilia from Poland whispered to me. "He hasn't worked out that the second dish is a pudding."

Realising his mistake, Girish grinned and explained he thought it worked well together. "When the dishes are so different each day, sometimes it's hard to figure it out." He enjoys the staff meals as they are the one chance he gets to properly interact with his co-workers. "And you get to flirt with the girls." Emilia giggled.

Kimchee has an international staff and Randy, the chef, encourages them to make dishes from their native countries. Dinner was a Burmese coconut noodle and Gundel pancake, made by Jorge, the Hungarian sous-chef. It contained a creamy chocolate sauce with a somewhat explosive alcoholic kick. I asked Randy if he kept a tight control over the dishes. "I certainly didn't know about the rum in this," he answered. Asked whether there is a set budget for the staff, he shrugged. "Not really. I'd draw the line at lobster."

For other restaurants, the line is considerably lower. "As a rule we'll not spend over £1 per head on a staff meal," a general manager of a high-end restaurant who has been working in the business for a decade told me, on condition of anonymity. "I've worked in places where the staff get off-cuts of meat, largely the fat. It'll be flavoured with curry powder to disguise, as best we can, the fact there's not much meat. "The thought is that it's better to put it into the mouth of a waitress than into a bin. I've been given half a curried chicken wing with loads of iceberg lettuce for an evening meal." On occasion, she said, she felt so embarrassed by what her staff had been given that she'd personally paid for them to order a takeaway Margherita.

Pizzas are occasionally eaten by the staff at the Michelin-listed Alimentum, I was told when I visited the restaurant in Cambridge, but only ones they make themselves. In the kitchen I met chef and part-owner Mark Poynton's team: junior sous-chef Carl (Mark's brother), Lewis, the pastry chef, and Jing, the chef de partie. The atmosphere was relaxed. Most of the preparation for the evening's dinner service had been done.

The staff meal was at 5pm and Carl was mixing up the trimmings of last night's saddle of venison for burgers.

As he added chopped parsley and tarragon he told me of a life of unrelenting labour. "I can't think of a tougher job," he said. "Nurses maybe. And troops in Afghanistan, but then again, they do get a month off." He broke an egg into the mix to bind it together and added a splash of Tabasco.

Lewis baked the burger buns and made chunky potato wedges, while Jing was fastidiously making mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, using tomato puree that had been made earlier for one of the restaurant dishes and adding in white wine, sugar and vinegar. Their use-what-you've-got mentality was impressive, and their meals always come from leftover ingredients, such as a casserole made, for example, from unused belly of lamb. The way the team gathered leftover food from all over the kitchen was like watching birds build nests.

Today's meal was a joint effort by the kitchen staff but they usually take it in turns to prepare the entire meal. In every restaurant I've visited it's as likely the staff meals will be prepared by the kitchen porter as the head chef. For this part of restaurant life, all is equal. The burger was delicious, and if it were served in a pub you'd go back again. Jing told me that a week earlier she had made lamb koftas, tzatziki and hoummos. I asked her whether it feels like feeding your family. She looks around at her colleagues, with their heads in their plates. "Well, more like your pets."

My little tour of restaurants proud enough of their staff meals to want to show me, left me impressed. The thought and care that went into a Tuesday early evening meal to be eaten at speed was far more than I'd expected. Yet I'm sure there are hundreds of restaurants that are nowhere near as considerate to their staff. Most of us have discreetly enquired of restaurant staff whether they actually get the tips we leave. Maybe we should ask them, too, if they get anything to eat.

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