At These Restaurants, Feeding the Staff Comes First

When Eric Ripert was a young cook at La Tour D’Argent, possibly the oldest restaurant in Paris and certainly one of the stuffiest, all the cooks sat down before service to a proper French meal: appetizer, entree, dessert and cheese.

He is hardly nostalgic for his time there. (“I have PTSD” from the experience, he said.) But he had that meal in mind when he posted a job opening for “Staff Meal Chef” at Le Bernardin, his temple of seafood in Midtown Manhattan, making it possibly the first U.S. restaurant to hire a chef just to cook for its own employees.

Serving and sharing a meal before diners arrive is a longstanding tradition in the culinary world — at restaurants that can afford it. In most kitchens, especially in fast food and casual dining, workers have to stagger their breaks and bring or buy their own food. Even at high-end restaurants, staff meal has often been a last-minute effort, with line cooks scrambling to refuel their co-workers as quickly and cheaply as possible.

But many American chefs are devoting new attention and care to staff meals, or family meals, as they are often known. In a notoriously abusive industry, the mental and physical health of employees has become a priority, and retaining staff has become an imperative amid a post-pandemic labor shortage. With benefits and perks like family meal, restaurants are trying to build loyalty among employees. Increasingly, they’re are also using the meal as a teaching opportunity, a testing tool and a creative incubator.

More than 100 people work at Le Bernardin on any given day, and the restaurant serves them all family meal twice: before lunch and dinner.Credit…Clay Williams for The New York Times
At Mr. Ripert’s direction, Mr. Steers serves meat or poultry (like za’atar-spiced chicken, above) to the staff almost every day. “They get tired of seafood,” Mr. Ripert said.Credit…Clay Williams for The New York Times

Mr. Ripert said that he created the position at Le Bernardin because the daily struggle to get family meal ready affronted his pride in a kitchen that runs like clockwork. “It got under my skin,” he said.

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