Restaurant Staff Meals Are Family Style
After hours, hardworking restaurant staff takes its turn at the table
It’s 9pm on a Saturday when I arrive at Café Zack, a staple of the Ventura restaurant scene. I am here to join the staff for their post-service meal and get a taste of a restaurant ritual that’s inspired a slew of cookbooks in recent years, including Off The Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants by Marissa Guggiana and Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants by Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy.
I grab a chair at an empty two-top and surreptitiously soak up the ambience. The first thing I notice is that none of the restaurant’s diners is staring into their phone. Diners at different tables talk to each other; one table of regulars advises another of first-time patrons on what to order.
It’s a cocktail party vibe and proprietor Hector Gomez is at the helm, striking the perfect balance between chatty and discreet—as when he somehow manages to refill wine glasses straight from a jeroboam (a bottle equal to four standard bottles) without interrupting the conversation at a table of six celebrating a bachelor party. But it’s Gomez’s brother-in-law, Federico Cervantes, who keeps the dinner service on track.
In a balletic series of stealth maneuvers around the compact dining room, Cervantes, a slight man with an impressive horseshoe mustache, refills breadbaskets, clears plates and serves meals. His official title is sous chef, and he runs the kitchen at lunch. Later he tells me he’s also the painter behind the camellia-red walls in the rear dining room.
Perhaps Cervantes’ most important role, though, was introducing Gomez to the owners of Café Zack in the 1990s. That led to Gomez taking a job as a server, then manager, then, in 2000, the opportunity to buy the business and make it his own. But Gomez ensured some traditions remained, including menu favorites like Zack’s pie, and staff dinners after service. “It’s a way to show appreciation,” he tells me as he buzzes between tables.
Sometime after 10pm, as the last two tables pay their bills, the kitchen begins working on the final meal of the evening—for the staff of seven. Mussels clack in a pan and the aroma of garlic wafts into the dining room. I peer through the hatch between dining room and kitchen just in time to see a glug of cream cascade over the shellfish and a strainer of broccoli disappear into boiling water.
Before long, plates start appearing on the pass: an heirloom tomato caprese; rib-eye steak scraps with roasted potatoes; green beans with yellow squash and carrots; those mussels cooked in onions, garlic butter and cream; and a giant skillet of penne.
While pasta forms the core of a typical staff meal at Café Zack, Gomez notes that the rest of the dishes are often based on “whatever we need to get rid of.” In addition to being a gesture of gratitude, staff meals are a critical component of reducing food waste. They can also be a source of inspiration: The medallions of pork tenderloin on the menu were originally created for a staff meal.
Soon the kitchen team emerges, and I meet Alejandro Hernandez, the dishwasher, as well as Federico’s two brothers: Jorge Cervantes, pastry chef; and Salomé Cervantes, executive chef. “Family meal” is often used interchangeably with “staff meal” in the restaurant trade, and it’s particularly appropriate here.
“It’s the fun time of the day,” Gomez says of the meal. They talk about the day’s activities, sports and their favorite soccer team, Real Madrid.
As the group serves themselves and settles down to eat, I ask about their favorite staff meals. Salomé Cervantes punts the question, insisting nothing beats a meal at home with his wife, Ana, and her homemade tortillas. Jorge Cervantes swirls a glass of red wine while he thinks, eventually declaring it’s his brother’s take on Capellini alla Checca (recipe opposite).
The plates are empty all around. Gomez looks at Hernandez: “Get more, mijo,” he says to the young man. Hernandez obliges.
Occasionally, everyone on staff will get to eat their favorite Café Zack meal on the same night, regardless of what’s leftover. As Gomez told me earlier in the evening, “If we have a really good night, we have whatever we want.”
This generosity with the crew echoes the graciousness with the guests I witnessed earlier. At Café Zack, “family meal” works just as well to describe the evening’s main service as the after-work feast.