The cobbling together of a kitchen's odds and ends to make a meal is not just the concern of a frugal home cook, but also of the chefs at some of the East Bay's best restaurants. Every night after service, what can't be saved for the next day's service, what would otherwise go to waste, becomes the staff meal.
"It's generally the only time we get to eat," said Phillip Ricafort, a bartender at Flora. "It's a special brand of torture to watch people eat when you're hungry."
Set out on a long table, staff meals are like a big family dinner, and the dishes are just as homey. "It's an important time for us to sit around, talk about our lives, and share our dreams," said Dominica Rice-Cisneros, chef/owner at Cosecha.
"It's a very loving family. Some of us have known each other a long time," said Kate August, a bartender at Pizzaiolo. "The conversations can get philosophical."
But even at a good restaurant, staff meals aren't always satisfying. "Sometimes, if the kitchen has had a busy night, staff meal downright sucks," said Julya Shin, the head chef at Pizzaiolo. "And during the day, staff meal for the cooks is frequently given to a lower-level cook who has fifteen minutes to do something creative for six or seven other cooks, who are the harshest critics. Sometimes it's just chickpeas, eggs, and hot sauce. Sometimes it flops."
But sometimes they luck out. Here's a rundown of some East Bay restaurant staff favorites:
Frank Sosa, Cosecha: "Dominica [Rice-Cisneros, chef/owner] cooks the staff meal at our place, and it's frequently just larger versions of what's on the menu that day. It's kinda like being in a grandmother's kitchen for a weekend meal, with fresh tortillas, rice, beans. My favorite thing there has been the peanut mole. Once it tasted exactly like my grandmother's mole, which is super unique. I've never had it anywhere else, and Dominica hit it exactly on the head. I haven't had that taste in my mouth since my grandma died, almost twenty years ago."
Elizabeth Verrichio, Camino: "The smoked sardines from one dish got mixed with the eggs from another, the result being a smoked sardine egg salad."
Phillip Ricafort, Flora: "Sandwiches. They'll put a giant sub out, all cut up into serving pieces, with the house-made charcuterie. Or occasionally they'll do a chicken salad sandwich."
Davis Letona, Duende: "We had an excess of pumpkin swordfish, Dungeness crab, and crab butter. So they flavored arroz negro (a black rice) with crab butter, topped it with a Dungeness crab salad, and arrayed the swordfish all around it. Staff meal here is so rich that I frequently only eat a salad before work."
Kate August, Pizzaiolo: "We get pizzas that don't get put on the menu — Padrón pepper, jalapeño, and crème fraîche. Or potato and clam, which is like clam chowder on a pizza. Sometimes we get more elegant things, like swordfish. Julya [Shin, head chef] is of Korean descent, so she'll sometimes do farro fried rice dishes with English peas, eggs, vegetables, lots of spice."
Greg Estow, Ippuku: "In Japan, Chinese food prepared in a Japanese style is very popular. One of our favorite dishes is ma bo tofu — ground pork with spicy tofu over steamed rice, which is a Szechuan dish done in a Japanese style. Even though it's not actually Japanese, a lot of the staff find it very homey."
Ma Bo Tofu
(from Ippuku sous chef Chikara Hisaki's notes)
1 package of medium-firm tofu
1/2 lb. ground pork
2-5 oz. scallion
1 clove garlic, chopped
starch water for slurry (a mix of cornstarch and water)
1-2 tablespoons tobanjan sauce (hot bean sauce)
1 tablespoon tenmenjan sauce (sweet soy bean sauce)
2/3 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sake
1 tablespoon sesame oil
salt and sansho pepper to taste
1. Cut tofu in one-inch cubes and boil in water for five minutes. Set aside.
2. Stir-fry garlic and ground pork in sesame oil.
3. Add sauce and simmer for five minutes.
4. Add chopped scallion and the tofu.
5. Add the starch water to finish.
Serve with rice.