I'm a chef who has worked in professional kitchens for about a decade now, including some that are considered among the best in the world. One of my favorite things to do as a chef is make staff meal, the meal that restaurant workers make and eat themselves.
Most restaurants have very thin profit margins, so staff meal ingredients have to be cost-effective. Enter: ground meat. Ground meat tends to be economical and lends itself to varied preparations. The recipes that follow are five ways I would turn ground meat into a staff meal in a professional kitchen. Some of these recipes I have served my fellow chefs, and some I might have to make for staff meal in the future. Regardless, they're still recipes that work in our home kitchens, and bring a sense of discovery to a routine ingredient we almost always have stored in the freezer.
The Importance of Staff Meal
Sometimes, staff meal is the only real meal the restaurant staff has time to eat; it often is for me. Plus, you're cooking for a room full of professional chefs and occasionally even world-famous chefs, so it has to be good. The pressure's on.
Luckily, I enjoy cooking staff meal because I like cooking for other people, and it's a good way to show the people I work with that I appreciate them and the work they do. Done well, it can also be a way to win favor with the bosses.
Why Ground Meat Is Always a Winner
Since I cook all day, I rarely cook at home. Staff meal is the closest thing I get to a home-cooked meal, so when I was asked to come up with dishes using ground meat, the first thing that came to mind was staff meal. You always want to make staff meal delicious, but much like home cooking, you often have to do so under two major constraints: time and money.
Making staff meal is rarely a cook's only responsibility, so efficiency and ease are factors that must be considered. The desire to impress bosses and coworkers must be weighed against the necessity of getting all the required prep done for that day's restaurant services. Cost is also a factor, and ground meats are always an economical choice.
Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Ground Beef
Choosing Ground Meat
When choosing ground meat, it is of the utmost importance to pay attention to the lean meat-to-fat ratio: Choose a ratio with too high a proportion of lean meat, and you will end up with something dry; choose a ratio with too much fat, and you will end up with something greasy and unappetizing.
I have found that a ratio around 75 percent lean and 25 percent fat works best. When choosing ground beef, pork, or lamb, don't get too caught up in what cuts of meat are used to make your mix. It is far less important than you think, since the amount of lean meat and fat varies in every cut in every animal. Just because it says short rib/chuck/brisket/etc., does not mean you are going to end up with a moist, delicious product. Stick with the right ratio instead.
With ground poultry, it is a bit harder to find the right ratio. Ground chicken and turkey have a tendency to be quite lean. When possible, I suggest asking your butcher to grind you legs and thighs, as they tend to have higher fat and collagen contents. You can also ask that your butcher to throw some extra skin into the grind to increase the fat ratio, as there is usually an excess of skin after butchering that would likely go to waste.
Read More: 5 Mistakes to Avoid with Ground Turkey
Substitutions of one ground meat for another are also quite common. For example, kofta is not only delicious with beef, but also with lamb. I have often found that flexibility quite useful and sometimes necessary in the professional kitchen.
Ground Meat Is Global
My strategy with staff meal has always been to keep it interesting and varied. I will often choose themes — one day it could be Jamaican, and the next Thai. This keeps the staff from getting bored, and also makes it easier for me to conceptualize dishes. The cost and adaptability of ground meat lends itself well to exploration and experimentation. Look to almost any culture around the world, and you will find a plethora of uses and techniques for it.
The recipes here should be used as templates; they can all be adapted to what you find at your local grocery store. I often have to adjust staff meal recipes to make use of what the restaurant has available, so feel free to do the same in your own kitchen. I encourage you to have fun and experiment!
(Image credits: Karla Conrad; Faith Durand; Quentin Bacon)