by Andrew Luzmore, Cornell University
It is a central irony in high-end restaurants that those who prepare the food often never taste the fruits of their labor. With the exception of those involved in conceptualizing and creating the menu, the majority of the work force, consisting mainly those of Latin American, West African or Southeast Asian extraction, rarely have the means to dine at the restaurants in which they devote their lives. Instead, daily sustenance in the restaurant in which I spent my summer was taken from the quotidian tradition of the family meal: a meal made by a single cook on a rotational basis for the entire staff using whatever is lying around, and more importantly, cheap. Although considered a necessary evil by some because of the rushed and sometimes careless fashion in which it is put together, for most the family meal serves as a mechanism to share in the culinary traditions of others and a much-needed outlet to unwind after a long shift.
In illustrating the nature of this tradition, the familial implications of the meal’s name are particularly apt in describing how it is typically carried out. The toil of working in the cramped and stressful conditions of a kitchen often fosters a strong sense of comradery among those involved, bringing together an otherwise disparate and eclectic group of individuals into a cohesive unit, much like a family. Like any family, though, bickering, unabashed egos and lasting tensions are commonplace. However, during the family meal the conflicts are temporarily dropped and things said during the preceding shift are forgotten, and the staff sits cross-legged on the floor and shares a meal. The family meal serves as a common ground and forms a basis upon which to bring everyone together. It also acts as a gateway to the vulgar and machismo-wrought conversation to follow. The language spoken is what is jokingly referred to as kitchenese: a patois of Spanish, English and African dialects, dripping with profanity and sexual innuendos. The staff commiserates over and compares burns, proud fathers share picture from their daughter’s Quinceañeras, and everyone tries to determine who could take whom in a fight, in other words, who is the biggest cabrón
Frugality is key in determining what will be placed on the table each night. Cooks making the family meal must do so on as low a budget as possible, stretching each morsel to its fullest potential. What is used is often the undesirable, nasty bits of meat and vegetables deemed too unfit to be served to paying customers. A typical family meal consists of some type of stewed meat, so laden with cartilage and fragments of bone that one must chew as if traversing a field of landmines, wilted greens past their prime and a perennial bowl of white rice or arroz blanco (which, coincidently, was my nickname during my tenure at the restaurant). It is a meal served in chipped dishware with the express purpose of sustaining, not savoring. However, a good meal goes a long way. It was Napoleon who once said, “An army marches on its stomach,” and there is often a direct correlation between the quality of the meal and the morale during the following shift. Additionally, the family meal serves as a veritable show and tell among the staff, providing insight into the culinary practices and traditions of the specific cook making the meal that day. Cooks bring in spices and other flavorings to recreate the tastes that they grew up with, and meals are accompanied by anecdotes about the cook’s family and the special occasions at which the meal was eaten. These stories are frequently laced with sentiments of national pride and wistful descriptions of home. It is in this way that the family meal transcends many of the ordinary conventions of society, and becomes as French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes asserts, a “system of communication” that speaks to greater issues of culture, race and society.
There is, however, deeper meaning to be parsed from this metaphor of food as an expository vehicle. On one of the last days of my employment I stood next to one of the cooks, named Raul, who often volunteered his time to prepare the family meal. Remarking that what he was making smelled particularly good, I asked him why he often made the meal. “I like it,” he said in very deliberate English, “because I take what is ugly, and make it good.” The concept of taking the unwanted and shaping it into something beautiful is especially appealing to many of those who work in restaurant kitchens because it encapsulates the ideals of what many are trying to accomplish in their lives: to emigrate to America with very little, and tirelessly work to build a better future for their families.
Months later, I returned to the restaurant to have dinner. When the food arrived, in addition to the beautifully plated dishes off the menu, there was a small cup of brown stew served in a chipped bowl. The busboy placed it in front of me, grinning ear to ear and said, “Pollo con mole. Es la receta de la abuela de Raul.” It tasted as I remembered, and I felt compelled to rush into the kitchen to thank everyone and listen to Raul talk about his grandmother. However, I stayed put in my seat and reveled in what it means to be part of a family, blood related or not. Though some members might stray or falter, familial bonds run deep. “Gracias,” I responded, smiling back. “Muchas gracias.”