Correction to This Article
An ingredient was omitted from the recipe for Hank's Lemon Beef Salad in the May 16 Food section. Two tablespoons of olive oil should have been listed after the sesame seeds. The olive oil is used to cook the meat and garlic.

What Your Waiter Had For Dinner

The kitchen and wait staffs at Hank's Oyster Bar near Dupont Circle talk shop during the pre-rush meal they share.
The kitchen and wait staffs at Hank's Oyster Bar near Dupont Circle talk shop during the pre-rush meal they share. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Matt Bonesteel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The most exclusive tables in the Washington area don't reside at Minibar, Jose Andres's whimsical six-seat experiment in Penn Quarter. Or at Michel Richard Citronelle, where the chef's table seats up to eight and dinner starts at $285 per person. The Inn at Little Washington? Hardly.

The meals served at these little-known tables usually aren't on the menu and don't necessarily match the cuisine served at the restaurant. They're usually free in the conventional sense, but there's a price to pay nonetheless. Want a seat? Put on an apron, pick up a knife and take a station, or grab a waiter's pad and pen. You're going to have to work for your supper.

At many higher-end restaurants in Washington and elsewhere, the staff eats a "family meal" before or after the lunch or dinner rush. The tradition has existed "since time immemorial," says Victor Albisu, chef de cuisine at the downtown Latin eatery Ceiba. Jamie Leeds, executive chef and owner of Hank's Oyster Bar near Dupont Circle, traces it to Europe, where "they work all day, so they all take a break together."

In the 2006 bestseller "Heat," which takes readers inside the kitchen of Mario Batali's Babbo in New York, author Bill Buford writes that the family meal is "bountifully served around four in the afternoon"; he offers a recipe for linguine and clams served to Babbo's staff. In 2000, "Staff Meals From Chanterelle" went further: It's an entire cookbook of the New York restaurant's family meal recipes, compiled by David Waltuck, owner and executive chef.

Sometimes the meal is created out of food that needs to be eaten, but other times it's simply a chance for one of the chefs -- traditionally, but not always, the lowest chef in the pecking order -- to whip up something on their own, from their own ethnic background. Usually the meals don't involve dishes on the restaurant's regular menu. At Taberna del Alabardero in downtown Washington, where the Old World Spanish offerings include veal sweetbreads with jumbo shrimp, orange glaze and fennel salad, the staff often dines on fajitas, berenjena rellena (stuffed eggplant) and pizza.

"The cooks will come up with meals from something left over, but also meals that are cost-effective and creative at the same time, and also try to be nutritious," Leeds said. "It's a chance to come together, but also to have energy for the busy evening."

Family meals provide a time for everyone to socialize and gossip, to get up to speed on that night's menu and, probably most important, to fuel up for the night ahead or refuel from the rush that just ended. And they go a long way toward maintaining harmony in both the front and back of the house.

"It's important that people feel like they're taken care of," Leeds said. "They feel like you care about them."

Sometimes the meals don't go over well, which can lead to tension among the staff. "I remember a time that a chef I worked with before wouldn't season anything," Albisu said of a former co-worker who didn't think highly of the family meal concept. "The staff got really fed up. . . . People were like, 'Please, you have to do something about it.' He would season it with just salt after that."

Bill Fuller, corporate chef for the Big Burrito Restaurant Group in Pittsburgh, worked at the Occidental near the White House from 1985 to 1992. In his online newsletter at Bigburrito.com he recounts the challenge of creating family meals out of "squash guts," the "remnants of yellow squash and zucchini that had had their yellow and green exteriors shaved off with a mandoline for vegetable spaghetti." In a telephone interview, Fuller recalled that "we'd have fights about squash guts. When the dishwashers stop eating it, it's time to not serve it anymore."

On a recent spring afternoon, there are no squash guts to be seen at Hank's. It's 4:30, an hour before the restaurant opens for the evening. In the front of the room, servers are wiping down tables, filling ketchup bottles and laying out place settings. The chalkboards that list the day's specials and the varieties of fresh oysters for sale are wiped clean of yesterday's offerings. It's a warm yet breezy day, so there are discussions about whether to open the restaurant's sidewalk patio.

Back in the kitchen, which at best can be described as cozy, kitchen manager Xoch Walker is briskly preparing a meal not offered on Hank's seafood-heavy menu: Lemon Beef Salad. Strips of beef are tossed into a big pan to brown; then the cooked meat is joined by garlic, celery, onion, red bell pepper, jalapeƱo chili pepper, tomato, lemon and lime juice, and cilantro.


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