No matter how many times you visit a restaurant, nor how determinedly you eat your way through the menu, there are certain dishes that, as a customer, you'll never be invited to try. Now we're not talking about some exclusive dining club here, but rather the food that is served as part of the staff meal. Sometimes referred to as the family meal, this usually takes place in the late afternoon, when the lunchtime rush has subsided and before the onslaught of evening service begins.
In an industry where the hours are often long and the working environment fraught, the long-observed tradition of the staff meal provides welcome respite, as well as a chance to restock and refuel. “The staff meal at Bistro Des Arts is a serious affair,” says Stephane Cadelle, the executive chef at the French restaurant on Dubai Marina. “For us it’s so important. A well-fed team is a happy team – it really affects staff performance.”
Nick Alvis, chef patron at Folly by Nick & Scott, agrees: “We make a big thing about the staff meal. No matter how busy we are, we insist that everyone in the team stops and has a break. You can’t expect people to function on empty: if you eat well, you work better. It also gives the team a chance to clear their heads before service begins again.”
As Alvis points out, this practice isn’t just about providing edible ammunition for the hours ahead. The meal brings front and back house staff – those who spend their days serving dish after dish of fabulous food, and those responsible for preparing it – together, and encourages communication and stronger working relationships. “We’re a small set-up and our staff dinner is reflective of this. One meal is prepared for everyone and we sit around the table as a group,” says Cadelle. “This helps to build a vital bond between team members. [Also] bear in mind that many people are working here without their families; sharing a meal helps to create a sense of community and unity.”
This inclusive, egalitarian approach to the staff meal is also in place at contemporary brasserie Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera, where every day, at about 4.15pm, the entire restaurant brigade, from managers to kitchen porters, receptionists, members of the marketing team and the chefs themselves, has dinner en masse out on the restaurant terrace. Executive chef Carl Maunder says that the convivial experience is key for promoting team spirit and social engagement between colleagues: “It means that staff members of all departments and rank spend time together, and is quite often one of the few opportunities we all have to communicate socially.”
Whether the restaurant in question serves its customers a modern European menu, fine French fare or fusion dishes, the food cooked for the staff meal tends to be simple, sustaining and hearty. That’s not to say it’s not delicious. “We don’t have a designated staff-food cook, so all the chefs will be involved in producing the meal during their working week. It isn’t so much about specific dishes or recipes, more that you are given a set of ingredients and have to produce meals based around them,” explains Maunder. “I really enjoyed this when I was a line cook: you get inventive with what you have and, hopefully, impress your fellow chefs.”
At both Folly and Bistro Des Arts, a similar approach is followed. “Each chef is responsible for preparing the staff meal at some point, which gives them the opportunity to display creativity as well as pride in their work,” says Cadelle. “As we have a multinational kitchen team, the dishes really vary, with everything from Indian to Asian, as well as Italian and French. Everyone tends to cook their favourite dish, so it’s always made with love.”
At Jumeirah Restaurant Group, where the number of employees is far greater and the staff meal more of a production, a sense of thrift is still encouraged. Emma Banks, the general manager for JRG, says that the company champions a zero-waste initiative, which means that staff meals are frequently based on ingredients on hand in the kitchen. Even then, though, the idea of the meal as a means for building relationships is prioritised: “We put together a food calendar that includes dishes from the country of each employee,” Banks explains. “One day the menu could be Indian-inspired, the next made up of dishes from the Philippines. As a result, we find that people learn to understand and appreciate each other’s cuisine.”
Folly by Nick & Scott
Fresh pasta might sound extravagant, but as Alvis points out, the delicious, energy-giving end result belies the inexpensive, accessible ingredients needed to make it (namely flour, eggs, olive oil and water). Indian-influenced curries and dals also feature on rotation at Folly and are always accompanied by freshly squeezed juices and chilled fruit teas.
Bistro Des Arts
While dishes vary from day to day, pakoras – made with an array of different vegetables mixed with flour, eggs and spices before being deep-fried until crisp and golden – are a firm favourite at Bistro Des Arts, particularly when served accompanied by a crunchy salad and cooling yogurt dressing.
Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera
Here the staff member tasked with preparing the communal meal utilises the ingredients that are most readily available or in excess that day, and is encouraged to give them an interesting or appealing twist. Delicately spiced, authentic-tasting butter chicken tops the list for most requested dish, and biryanis are also popular.