‘You can’t run a team on empty’: how the restaurant staff meal is changing

Naturally, you would assume chefs eat well at work. These are food lovers surrounded by great produce doing long hours at weird times. Surely rustling up tasty staff meals is an established perk of the job? And in that assumption you would be wrong.

When Sam Grainger, chef-owner of Belzan in Liverpool, started cooking 15 years ago, staff meals were “non-existent. You heard of it in hotels and Michelin kitchens that didn’t open until 6pm. But in full-on, city-centre, 11-to-11 places, you often didn’t have time. If you said, ‘I’m taking my break,’ you might be shunned for leaving someone else in a mess. Chefs lived on coffee, energy drinks, cigarettes.”

Punishing yourself was part of chefs’ then “rock star attitude”. “A lot of managers and owners would say, ‘Go, eat,’ and assume everyone did. Not eating was definitely not a rule. You’d be hungry. The prep chef might throw something on, a stew or bolognese, easy, stodgy one-panners, and you’d end up binning it at the end of the night.”

There has never been an industry standard on staff food, either on availability or quality, and provision was and is incredibly varied. In large, busy or chain restaurants, with many staff on various shifts, employees are usually entitled to eat from the menu for free or at a 50-75% discount (sometimes from a limited choice of lower-cost dishes). Some provide staff rooms or let staff eat in the restaurant. Others shoo them into back rooms.

In smaller restaurants, a forward-thinking owner might set the tone. Selin Kiazim, the chef-owner at London’s Oklava, worked at Peter Gordon’s now closed The Providores and Kopapa. “Without fail, we had a generous, delicious breakfast and lunch. We were treated to all sorts of cuisines. Hainanese chicken rice was one favourite. With the restaurants trading all day, the only thing that was tricky was getting all the staff to sit down together.”

Restaurants that “flat out refuse” staff food are rare, says Tom (not his real name), a veteran chef. But grumbling managers are common. “There are always employers who want it to be the absolute cheapest.” Years later, Grainger shudders at the memory of a staff meal of sausages baked in 5kg of cheese. “Two inches of fat on top, the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

This is counterproductive, at best. “If people aren’t fed,” says Tom, “they’re not physically up to it and you start losing people, mentally. What they’re producing won’t be good quality.”

A new generation of head chefs is emerging who see manifest benefits in gathering their staff, late afternoon between services – usually at an undressed restaurant table – to eat what is often, rather sentimentally, referred to as the “family meal”. They want their employees to feel energised, valued, to bond as a team.

At Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In (WTLGI), everyone meets at 11am in a dedicated staff room to have a team meeting and eat breakfast, be it congee or cured mackerel on toast. The chefs take it in turns to cook breakfast and a 4pm meal of, for instance, jerk chicken, bibimbap or homemade pizza. “I remember eating out of pans sat on top of fridges, and eating around a table is super important,” says chef-owner Sam Buckley, who usually handles Saturday breakfast. “It’s a courtesy to people who work hard for you.”

Modern, progressive kitchens of course use trim from prime meat cuts or surplus vegetables in staff food, minimising waste. But most (instead of purchasing cheap jars and packets for staff teas, as was common) allow staff to buy extra ingredients, often from the restaurant’s suppliers. Some budget around £3 a head, others leave it open ended. “No one’s ordered a kilo of truffles yet,” says Buckley.

The staff meal at Belzan in Liverpool.
The staff meal at Belzan in Liverpool. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Observer

As a young chef, says Stuart Ralston, owner of Edinburgh’s Aizle and Noto restaurants, “I weighed nine stone. I never ate.” That was often because staff food was poor. “At one place, as we made chicken stock we had to pick the carcasses to make staff tea. Now, buying staff fish and proteins is budgeted into our costs.”

At Oklava, Kiazim concedes getting everyone to sit down together can be difficult. “You’re constantly working around obstacles, staff shortages, supplier issues, busy lunches no one saw coming. On those occasions the 4pm meal is eaten at different times by everyone.” But staff are fed “healthy, nutritious” food. “I insist on vegetables or salad next to the main and limit the amount of pasta. It can make staff lethargic and it shouldn’t always be the quick go-to.”

When he opened Belzan in 2017, Grainger and his co-owners were determined to build the benefits of staff meals into the business in a self-sustaining way. His novel solution was that a rota of staff, including front-of-house servers (and the owners, periodically), would create a daily staff meal which, billed as such, is then sold on the evening menu as a £6 small plate.

This was to ensure the staff meal would remain creative and high quality, and would pay for itself. It also meant junior chefs, who ordinarily have no input to menus, could see their ideas realised in plates of lamb kofta, beef rendang or, after prepping endless florets, a cauliflower stalk curry.

“The head chef tests and plays around with the dish if he needs to,” says Grainger, before it is served to diners. But it is taken “extremely seriously”. Is it not unfair pressure on waiting staff? “No,” insists Grainger. Initially, they are eased in and assisted. “They really go for it. On days off, I get texts like, ‘Can we work on this dish together?’ It’s competitive.”

That evening staff meal – nothing too heavy or carby – is eaten as the pre-service briefing takes place. The food, says Grainger, is an “amazing morale booster. They go into service really pumped with smiles on their faces talking about what we’ve just had for dinner. That’s hard to instil in people.”

On one level, this contemporary reverence for the family meal is a fashion. In the 2010s, a crop of influential books extolled the virtues of restaurant staff feeding one another: el Bulli’s The Family Meal; Come In, We’re Closed; photographer Per-Anders Jörgensen’s Eating With the Chefs. As chef David Waltuck, author of Staff Meals from Chanterelle, told Food & Wine: “In some ways it was more rewarding than cooking for customers.”

Suddenly staff food was exciting. The world learned about Noma’s staff canteen, and how at Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca the Roca brothers would walk with their team to eat at their parents’ village bistro. In Come In, We’re Closed, Ferran Adrià insisted that properly planned staff food (dishes of roasted miso aubergine, mussels with noodles, crema catalana) “eliminated most problems” at a cost of €3 per person: “Where cooks eat well, you will eat better.”

That mantra is now online on the ManresaFamilyMeal Instagram account, where three-Michelin-star Californian restaurant Manresa posts its incredible staff menus. In Birmingham, Carters of Moseley attracts up to 6,000 people each day to Instagram, where its tutorials on its staff meals, such as ramen or chicken kiev balls (the recipes are collected in the book Staff), have gathered their own cult following.

This movement is also a generational and multi-generational shift. Most head chefs now pushing staff meals came up in the shadow of that changing restaurant culture. Kiazim, Buckley and Ralston are in their 30s, as is Grainger, who first experienced staff meals working at Jamie’s Italian. They also manage far younger chefs who – all kombucha, gym memberships and a keen sense of personal wellbeing – expect to be fed at work.

Grainger also co-owns Liverpool’s Madre, a huge 342-cover bar and restaurant, whose 74 staff eat for free. “If those chefs didn’t get a break to sit and eat, they’d leave – in the middle of the day.” Given the industry’s recruitment issues, no restaurant can risk that.

At Covent Garden’s Darjeeling Express, good staff food is a given. “You cannot serve on an empty stomach,” says chef-owner Asma Khan. “You can’t run a team on empty. It’s wrong.”

The restaurant began as a supper club and, among its 30 staff, the value of eating together is embedded. For instance, its Ghanaian kitchen porters regularly cook plantain for everyone (“we love it”), while Italian or Georgian staff will return from trips home with cakes or cheese to share. Every day at 5pm, 12 to 14 waiting staff – some finishing their shift, some starting – eat a selection of dishes, which they can take home to their families too.

“Sharing food is a great leveller. From comments about food come conversations about culture, identity, travel. It encourages them to discuss who they are,” says Khan. Not that she eats with this tight-knit team: “I don’t cramp their style. I’m the boss. The language can get interesting – they’re young kids – and if my son is working he’d be embarrassed I was there.”

The Oklava staff at their daily 4pm meal.
The Oklava staff at their daily 4pm meal. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

Instead, Khan eats earlier with her all-female kitchen team. Instead of the slow ’n’ low dishes served at Darjeeling Express, its chefs – as if still cooking in Khan’s home, where they could only spare one ring on the stove – prepare themselves hot, fast dishes such as chicken livers fried with dried red chillies, and lots of small fish. “You can’t serve them because, with a knife and fork, customers can’t find the fine bones, but all of us eat with our hands. It’s unique, quick stuff.”

The waiting staff break again around 9pm, to eat food they boxed up earlier or leftover momos, lentil fritters and parathas sent up by the kitchen. “Even if we’re busy, we pull one person at a time. The shift won’t finish until midnight and it might take 90 minutes to get home. They’re not my children but I would want their mothers to know they’re not starving on their journey.”

Sam Ward, managing director at Umbel Restaurant Group, which operates the chef Simon Rogan’s venues, would like hospitality to stop advertising staff food as a perk. “That’s a basic right. Our businesses work across times people normally eat. Feeding them is part of the deal.” Rogan’s four Cumbrian businesses feed about 120 employees daily, many twice.

Zoom out and it is possible to see this conversation around staff food as one element in a wider reckoning in hospitality on pay, hours and welfare. “It’s a bit brazen, maybe,” says Ward, caveating his thoughts, “but most UK restaurants have operated successfully off the back of the personal sacrifice of people who work in them. We’re in the middle of a tectonic shift. All these things are coming to a change.”

Belzan’s staff meal – roast pork belly, clementine, sage, star anise

Roast pork belly, clementine, sage, star anise. Food styling by Sophie Hammond.
Roast pork belly, clementine, sage, star anise. Food styling by Sophie Hammond. Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Sam Grainger: “This was created by our current head chef, Mark Dickey – the Christmassy dish you never knew you wanted so much.”

Serves 4-5
pork belly 2- 2.5kg, deboned, skin on
table salt 500g
pork stock 250ml
fino sherry 250ml
star anise 2
honey 120g
butter 200g, cold, cubed
sage ½ bunch, finely chopped
clementines 8, peeled and segmented
sea salt to serve

Preheat oven for at least 15 minutes to 160C fan/gas mark 4. Place the pork belly on a wire resting tray in a baking tray. Add a ½cm layer of salt to the skin on the pork belly. Place into the preheated oven for 1 hour 45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool and dry for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 220C fan/gas mark 9. Carefully remove all the salt from the pork belly – try to not brush it on to the flesh. Place the pork belly in the oven for 30 minutes until the skin is puffed and crispy.

While the pork belly is cooking, bring a large heavy-bottomed pan to a high heat. Add the pork stock, fino sherry and star anise. Bring to the boil and reduce by half. Add honey and continue to heat. When the sauce starts to thicken, reduce to a medium heat and add the cubed butter piece by piece, from the fridge, whisking to emulsify it. Add the sage and segmented clementines to the thickened sauce.

Let the roasted belly rest for 20 minutes. To finish, with a serrated knife, slice it into strips (one per-person) and spoon over the sauce and clementines. Season and serve.