When you ask any chef, “What’s the most important meal of the day?” 90% are gonna say family meals or breakfast.
That term family meal is one that gets cooks and chefs excited.
The daily motions of cooking can get monotonous. Leeks in a nage of white wine and aromatics, roasting veal bones for stock, reducing red wine and port wine for a sauce… when you hear family meal you sigh with relief.
You have a chance to break the daily grind of these intricate dish components and be able to do something you love to cook.
Go-to dishes are fried chicken, roasted potatoes in the oven, mac & cheese… and when the Mexican Mafia (aka la Banda) decides to get in the mix you will have a feast of Mexican dishes that will blow your mind.
It’s a rule and a duty to make sure the family meal is amazing.
Most of the skills you learned in the kitchen should translate to the family meal. Some chefs recognize where you are on your journey by the way you cook a family meal. How you manage your time, how you use the scraps and odd ends of restaurant products to create that family meal.
Thomas Keller, the renowned chef of French Laundry and PerSe fame, loves roasting chicken for his family meals. He said the reason why he loves it is because he learned to time manage with the chickens for family meals he used to make as a cook.
When I was in Copenhagen, working at the restaurant Noma, the family meal had its own team and they created dishes that were out of this world. From a whole lamb roast, fresh pita, and all the fixings to good old American burgers and homemade ketchup.
When I worked at Rayuela in the Lower East Side, we made huge paellas of shrimp and chicken, to roast pork (pernil), with rice and beans, and a nice homemade limeade. Magic.
One of the fondest memories of the family meal I had was at the West Village gem, Fedora. Chef Matt, the chef de cuisine in the space, was a master at controlling food costs, and he was a great teacher. Matt was atypical for a chef – a tall, lanky looking motherfucka, always wearing trucker hats.
He worked for Rick Moonen at RM Seafood in Las Vegas and Le Bernardin with Eric Ripert. Now he’s the partner/executive chef for the group running multiple properties and hotels.
Always pushing us to be creative, the family meal was a time for us to shine and he didn’t hesitate to applaud or recognize you when you cooked the meal to our front of house staff.
I remember he made me make a family meal with the white mussels that were attached to scallops. I swear he was fucking with me. But I think in hindsight he was forcing me to be creative and work with what I had.
I pulled it off and made ramen, and from then on I was hooked on the family meal. Not only for the challenge but the instant gratification of people loving or hating your food.
It helped me build tough skin and it also helped me get ready for the future as a head chef when I would go through that daily.
Ever since then I became the guy for the family meal. If it was my turn to cook I would go all out and experiment on flavor profiles I thought would work. There were a lot of misses but when it hit, it was amazing.
Every Sunday during the summer we would eat outside in our garden where there was a bench. 5-10 people would be out there and we would bond over watermelon and fried chicken. When it was the last day for someone we would go all out and cook them an amazing meal.
One of our colleagues was moving to Germany after working at Fedora for some time. We pooled some money together and I went to Chelsea’s Market and went all out. We got 3-4 beautiful Branzinis, spice mix from the spice place, and fingerling potatoes from the West Side Market.
I seasoned it with this beautiful yellow spice, so aromatic you could smell pungent and prevalent flavors like turmeric and coriander. Stuffed it with lemon and garlic and some rosemary, wrapped it in banana leaf and poured some coconut milk in it. The potatoes became German potato salad to signify her journey.
Oh boy! Once we opened that parcel, it fumed the whole place. It legitimately was one of the best meals I’ve ever had and everyone enjoyed it. I went on to do all types of dishes at my time there in Fedora.
Then one day without a clue, I was sitting by my station, writing my prep list down for the next day. I got called to the front of the kitchen by Waz, one of the managers. Chef Matt and the whole crew were all there too when he said,
“Harold, for all of your love and hard work towards the family meal and feeding us amazing meals these past few months. This is for you.”
A huge square box was presented on the table and I opened it. It was an old school vinyl player. I absolutely lost it. I was just trying to do the right things by my colleagues and they rewarded me with this gift. I was touched.
I thanked everyone and I was so overwhelmed. It was such an amazing and satisfying feeling. There was a direct correlation between doing good and getting rewarded for it. It was a life lesson for me: do the right things and karma will reward you.
Ever since then, any crew I ran needed to focus on the family meal.
They always want to cut it out of the equation and have the staff pay for food “with a discount,” but it creates separation and divides the team. I used what I learned at McDonald’s to always make sure there’s food for the family. Just imagine working 12 hours and only eating once or not eating at all.
You would be an angry server/cook/dishwasher/manager and it would give the customer, who we are trying to make happy, a bad experience. We budget it out in the P&L and we take a pool of cash from each employee for the spend every week.
Owners never understood why I took such great pride in it. They never understood the use. I’ve always translated it as a team-building activity, to training, and it helps the cooks stay engaged. The funny part is the owners always end up on the line for the family meal and they enjoy it too.
The most significant part of a family really is the time we spend when we sit down and eat.
There we talk shit about the other night’s service, when Manuel burned the steak, or when Chookie became the hero and banged out a crepe batter in minutes when we were in the middle of the hard push.
It’s also a chance for us to talk about current events, sex (a lot about sex), and food philosophies of other chefs and their techniques.
One of my favorite moments is when one of the guys makes something from their hometown and they go in on what it means to them eating this food this day. Or when Paul makes curry chicken Jamaican style and it gives everybody the sleepy eyes.
It’s a timeless ritual just like, before TVs and iPhones, where we would sit together and talk. It also becomes representative of our time now, More and more people are taking the time to sit, talk, and cook for each other at home.
It disrupts the ecosystem of the food industry, but morally and ethically it brings us closer as family. I transfer that feeling when I cook in the restaurant to when I cook at home now since the COVID-19 crisis. It makes me miss the restaurant, but it also helps me let go of the industry.
Now it’s time to turn the chapter to what’s next.
The concepts and the principles of the family meal have really guided the companies I now run, taking time to sit down and have conversations about the impact of the leadership in the company. Also, and perhaps most importantly, always eating and doing work around food, breaking bread together.
One of the main pillars of my leadership skills which I’ve learned through the family meal is the word compassion.
It’s often mistaken or folded with empathy. Those two are not the same. From what I’ve learned: compassion = empathy + action. Feeling what that person is going through, being in their shoes, and doing something about it.
That simple move of gifting me with that record player shows every bit of compassion of that happy cooking hospitality group, Fedora, Chef Matt, and the team showed me.
I will never forget it, and I will never forget the lessons I’ve learned about family meals there.
Roasted Branzino in Banana Leaf recipe
Branzino 1 P.C.
Banana leaf 2 ft
Coconut milk 2 cans
Lemons 2 pcs
Lemongrass 1 pcs
Ginger 1 P.C.
Red chili 1 P.C.
Spice mix 2 tbs
Unkle Harold’s 360 Spice
Stuff the Branzino with herbs and lemon slices, season the inside, and make sure you add the spice mix too.
Make a parcel with a banana leaf if you don’t have, use aluminum foil or parchment paper.
Cook in a 350 oven on a metal sheet tray for about 20-25 min.
Enjoy life. It’s too short.