Before service begins at many restaurants the staff gets together for a shared meal, where they catch up, take a break from prep for the impending shift, and eat food prepared by one of the staff’s chefs. This is known as the “family meal,” and is a storied tradition in the restaurant business. Even at the world’s greatest restaurants this tradition is observed. The finest chefs in the world prepare hearty, comforting meals served only to their staff.
You may try for years to get into a place like Noma, Le Bernardin, or The French Laundry, restaurants known the world over for mind-blowing cuisine where tables are scare and reserved months in advance. Those Michelin-starred kitchens are exclusive bastions of culinary magic, but the best dishes they serve may be something you can never taste, because they’re exclusively for staff.
For many years the finest restaurant in the word was Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Spain. It was easier to score all-access passes to the Super Bowl than to get a table at elBulli, but if you did, it was a gastronomic experience like none other. Ferran Adrià was an early pioneer of “molecular gastronomy,” which takes knowledge of chemistry, physics, and other food-related sciences to create culinary creations you could never imagine.
Adrià’s plates were something for the eyes, nose, and tastebuds. Because of their complexities, elBulli dishes are not something the average person could ever hope to duplicate at home. However, one lasting legacy of Adrià’s kitchen you can bring home are the recipes for his family meals. In his cookbook entitled, appropriately enough, “The Family Meal,” Adrià details many of the meals he made for his staff of 75 before they began service.
Why the Family Meal Is So Important
In the forward to his book, the acclaimed chef asks, “Why is the family meal at elBulli so important? The answer is very simple: we believe that if we eat well, we cook well.” Of course, he’s right.
Think of the old phrase, “A family that eats together, stays together.” Americans these days are terrible about sitting down to real, honest dinners at a table together. I’m guilty of this too. Sometimes our lives are so hectic that one parent is getting home late, but the kids are hungry, so the other parent dishes out a quick meal the kids can shovel down and get them back to homework, playing, or prepping for bed. Then the parents grab a meal later in front of the TV, or while reading on their phones.
We lose a lot as a culture when we lose those family meals. We lose the chance to learn what the others are doing: “What did you learn at school today?” We lose the chance to catch up with the latest achievements, triumphs, and sorrows. We lose the chance to share in conversation the wisdom parents can offer their children, and the unique perspectives that only children can experience. That time is important, and that’s why chefs of all stripes and stars get their staff together for a family meal before they begin a long night of service.
How to Prepare a Really Good Meal
This isn’t a book with a list of recipes, written Betty Crocker-style. This is a step-by-step guide to creating full meals. In fact, Adrià has provided “meals that have been thought out in their entirety.” They’re organized “into thirty-one balanced menus, each one containing three courses.” As you work your way through the book you notice right away this is a visual guide to cooking, not just a written one. Pictures accompany each step, showing you what wrapped saffron should look like or just how to skim foam from the surface of a chicken stock.
Over the next year, I’m going to cook my way though this culinary tome. With 31 menus, I won’t write about it each week, but when I do you’ll get a chance to see how a common man with no professional training but a desire to cook good food handles the recipes of one of the world’s most esteemed chefs.
It should be an adventure. Bon appétit!