What happens beyond the swinging doors that lead into a restaurant's kitchen isn't always the infernal scullery you see on reality TV.
Sure, plates get dropped, stockpots get banged around, kitchen crews shout above the din and temperatures rise as the evening's service hits its peak. Happens in any kitchen (even yours or mine) as the clock ticks toward dinner.
What helps many top restaurants keep their kitchen crews cool and in sync when working in high gear? They sit down together before dinner service for a meal, often simple comfort foods, prepared by staff. Beyond nourishment, the meal builds a camaraderie that can survive day-to-day mini-uproars.
Two recent books vouch for the value in preparing and eating a meal together: "Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants," by Marissa Guggiana (Welcome Books, $40), and "The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria" (Phaidon Press, $29.95).
"At its core, it is a time for the health of the staff to develop," she writes. "Like dinner for many families, it is the only time that everyone is together in an unstructured way."
At El Bulli, chef Adria's culinary temple in Roses, Spain, the daily supper was dubbed the "family meal," because the 75 staff members are like family. "It's an important moment when everyone sits down together to eat," he writes. "We believe that if we eat well, we cook well."
How a staff meal comes together often reflects a restaurant's character and style. Some let staff create feasts from items culled from the pantry. Some plan meals in great detail. Some meals are simple, yet fabulous. Some not so much. And sometimes staff order out.
Adria and a head chef at El Bulli (now closed, but reopening in 2014 as a culinary think tank) meticulously planned "everyday varied and inexpensive meals" of an appetizer, entree and dessert, working from 100 or so favorite recipes, ranging from duck with chimichurri sauce to cheeseburgers with potato chips (commercial chips, by the way).
Guggiana toted a camera and laptop to 51 restaurants. Her focus? Farm-to-table restaurants and "places that have a reputation for having great staff meals or places I knew had really happy staffs," she says, during a phone chat from her Berkeley, Calif., home.
"There's a subtle, cumulative bonding that happens over time," Guggiana says. "It's not just the eating, but the getting to do something fun and creative and making it."
The principle applies at home, too, Guggiana says: "People value things more when they've made a contribution -- at home and in the restaurant kitchen."
> MARGARITA'S CHILI VERDE
2 1/2 pounds pork butt, trimmed, leaving a small amount of outside fat
1/2 cup olive oil
1 head garlic, peeled, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 medium yellow onions, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 pounds tomatillos, papery skins removed, coarsely chopped
1 to 3 fresh jalapenos, seeded, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped
2 cups each: water, chicken broth
1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
Cut pork into 1 1/2 -inch cubes. Place pork, oil, chopped head of garlic, salt and pepper in a large Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high heat until hot; lower heat to low. Cook 1 hour. Stir occasionally so pork cubes brown well on all sides. Drain off all but a few tablespoons oil; add half the onion to pork. Cook 2 minutes.
Add remaining onion, tomatillos, jalapenos, remaining 2 cloves chopped garlic, water and broth. Simmer uncovered, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check seasoning while cooking, adding salt and pepper to taste. Check meat at 1 1/2 hours; the pork should be very tender. If you'd like a thicker stew, increase heat slightly and reduce liquids. Check seasoning; serve garnished with cilantro.
Note: In "Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants," Guggiana includes this recipe from Osteria Stellina, in Pointe Reyes, Calif. The original recipe makes a restaurant-size batch; we cut the ingredient quantities in half. Serve with rice, tortillas or bread.
Per serving: 453 calories, 22g fat, 6g saturated fat, 122mg cholesterol, 18g carbohydrates, 45g protein, 411mg sodium, 5g fiber.