Have you ever heard of the staff meal, the ritual in which a restaurant's staff will sit down together for a meal before they open for service? If you're like me, you might find yourself a little envious of that meal and curious, too, about what they eat. Marissa Guggiana must have been interested as well, because she sought out restaurants that took their staff meals seriously and paid them a visit, leaving with a handful of recipes and photos to share with us in her new book Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants.
Ms. Guggiana specifically looked for restaurants that had a strong farm to table connection or a special place in their communities, knowing that these establishments would likely extend that caring and respect to their staff. For six weeks she traveled across the USA to visit such places, entering through the back door with her camera and notebook in tow, and sitting down with the staff, and sometimes even the chef/owner, for a meal. The result makes for an eclectic, inspiring collection of recipes that come from the less public, more intimate and 'unbuttoned' side of the chefs.
Here you will find Pork Chilaquiles from Franny's in Brooklyn, Yakamein Soup (aka Old Sober) from Galatoire's in New Orleans, Meme's Meatloaf and Creamy Macaroni from Meme in Philadelphia. There's an Apple Crisp from Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, Cabbage Salad from AOC in Los Angeles, Chicken and Biscuits Casserole from Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. Tabard Inn in Washington DC offers Wild Boar Ragu, and from Frances in San Francisco there's Michaela's Empanadas.
The book is full of candid photos of the meal, the staff, and the restaurant. It's a lot of fun to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the kitchen and of the staff sitting down together. The shots of the recipes featured are helpful as well. There's a decent index and a table of contents that lists the restaurants in alphabetical order, so it's easy to find what your looking for. Off the Menu is a big, hefty book at almost 300 pages, with a paper slipcover and a sturdy binding that lays flat and open for ease of use.
Perhaps one of the most unique and delightful features is The Escoffier Questionnaire. This is a list of questions (based on the famous Proust Questionnaire) that Melissa presented to each of the chefs. Here we can find out what coffee shops and grocery stores they frequent (great advice for your travels), their favorite ice cream and chocolate and what they most value in a sous chef. It includes such questions as 'what kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?' and 'what's your favorite guilty-pleasure treat?' The questionnaires are a lot of fun and offer an even deeper look into the makings of each chef and their restaurant.
For more information on the book, a sample of the Escoffier Questionnaire and a map showing all the restaurant locations, visit Welcome Books' web page: Off the Menu.
Buy the Book! Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants by Marissa Guggiana, $24.57 from amazon.com.
The recipe below, from Oakland, CA's Camino, is typical of this book: a simple recipe made with a few good ingredients that produces excellent results. Deep, rich, chewy, full of nourishing kale and spiked with garlic and herbs, this wonderful dish is perfect for a late autumn dinner. Be sure to take chef Russell Moore's advice and serve this topped with a fried egg.
Camino's Fried Farro with Dark Greens
Farro Piccolo is only milled by Anson Mills, a cherished South Carolina source of grains. You can order it from their website, or find another farro varietal in your neck of the woods. This preparation is like fried rice but with all the nutritional robustness of farro.
1 cup Anson Mills
1 bunch dark greens: collard, kale, or broccoli rabe
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 spring onion or ½ bunch scallions
1 stalk green garlic or 2 cloves garlic
A handful of fresh herbs: savory, marjoram, basil, anise hyssop
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Spread the dry farro on a sheet pan and toast it until a little brown, about 10 minutes. Toasting the farro will enhance the flavor.
Coarsely chop the dark greens. In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add the greens. Cook over high heat for 5 to 8 minutes, drain, and set aside.
Combine the toasted farro with 2½ cups salted water in the saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 to 30 minutes. The cooking time will vary according to the variety of farro, whether there is some or all of the husk still on, and how long ago the farro was harvested. Drain the farro.
Heat a medium cast-iron skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan over a medium flame. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the spring onion, and garlic. Stir-fry for a few minutes, until the onion is just tender and beginning to brown. Add the farro along with the remaining tablespoon of oil and continue to fry to encourage browning, constantly stirring to avoid burning, about 6 or 7 minutes.
After the farro is fried, add the herbs and about 2 cups (or more) of the cooked greens and warm through. Serve immediately. For a complete meal, serve farro with poached eggs or grilled or roasted meat.
Related: Book Review: A Day at El Bulli
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(Images: Marissa Guggiana)