What do you do when you’re given the opportunity to ask Daniel Boulud (the mecca of French cuisine), Dan Barber (the creator of farm to table fine dining), and Danny Bowien (the innovator behind Mission Chinese) a question from the audience?
Well, you start by racking your brain for something interesting, yet informative… once you’ve got the question in your head, you suppress the nerves that have built up in your stomach… and as the mic reaches your hand, you speak as if you’re Ruth Reichl leading the panel at Bite Baldor.
What did I ask the Chefs? Well Daniel Boulud had mention earlier in the conversation that the culinary industry is like being in a fraternity, a brotherhood; which made me think of Michael Romano’s book Family Table which spotlights the “family meal” served each night for the staff.
So I asked, “What would it be like to attend a family meal at your restaurant before service begins?”
Danny Bowien: “Cooking a staff meal can be really scary for new chefs in the kitchen. Sometimes the veteran chefs are so busy that they just throw food into a quart container to their stations… and when I cooked my first staff meal… I remember the chefs being really intense, so I didn’t want to give them a meal that sucked. At Mission Chinese we assign the family meal chef one protein and they take it from there!”
Daniel Boulud: “The youngest Chef in the kitchen is given a budget and that person is responsible to cook family meal for 1 month… and they can cook whatever they want! I eat the family meals at least twice a week and at first we didn’t sit down to eat… but now we make sure to take the time to sit down at the table together before service :)”
Dan Barber: I’m not really proud of our family meal. We rotate who’s cooking, and I eat the family meal every day… but I want to do something about this…
Did I just provoke food for thought?
OVERALL: The conversation went back and forth over four minutes…one of the longest answers during the entire Q&A section! As the Chefs disclosed their family meal process, I was giddy, nervous and beyond excited to hear their genuine responses to my question.
In sum, all of their restaurants cook the staff meals in house, the newest cook in the kitchen is responsible for the meal, they are given a fixed budget and free range for cuisine.
Personally, I think organization of family meal says a lot about the Chef, their food and who they are. I haven’t worked in a typical restaurant, but I have worked in the James Beard Foundation kitchen; and in the JBF kitchen, most chefs will provide a staff meal by ordering pizza or sandwiches (which isn’t a total drag considering this is NYC), so it was really interesting to get the inside scoop from the best restaurants in NYC.