Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Family Meal

You'd be amazed at how quickly a cook can put together a meal for 30.  I regularly witnessed entire meals - salad, main course, sides - assembled in 10 minutes. That's about how long it takes most cooks to assemble family meal, the meal served to everyone - the kitchen staff, servers, bussers, and anyone else looking for a free meal - right before service starts at 5:30. 

Whether family meal was edible or not depended on who assembled it. Sometimes the sous chefs would take their turns, and the meal was pretty good. They always had a hidden stash of something tasty - meat sauce for pasta, a complete lasagna for 30, roast chicken. The younger cooks were afraid of getting yelled at by the chef for using expensive ingredients (they were afraid of getting yelled at for breathing), so they always made rice with the leftover lentils and wilted salad.  

I took my turn at family meal after months of begging. The idea that a pastry chef - the pale and uncoordinated step-child of the kitchen - could put together a meal was laughed at by some, particularly the waitstaff when they saw I had made sloppy joe's (as if sloppy joe's were somehow beneath these petty thieves and winos). Of course, it gave me the opportunity to say what I had always dreamed of saying in my advertising career but couldn't: Shut the fuck up. 

But no person's family meal was more feared than Mauro's. Mauro was the in-house butcher, and his job was to accept the shipments of meat, chicken, and fish and then break them down (i.e. hack them up). His station was in the basement, and he worked by fluorescent light, cutting up carcasses all day long. 

Mauro was a cute, boyish Argentinian who couldn't have been more than 23 or 24. If he shaved at all, it was maybe once every couple of weeks. He had a nasal-y voice that screamed deviated septum, and I had to stifle the urge to offer him decongestant and/or surgery. 

His first family meal was a big pot of soup. We all stood in line with our bowls. I was at the end of the line but I noticed that the people up at the front were staring into the pot. I pushed my way forward to get a better look. 

Another 30 seconds of uncomfortable silence, and then someone finally asked what we all wanted to ask.

"Dude, are those teets?"

Mauro had cut up the skin of a pig in 1" squares and made a soup with the offending pieces. Some people just spooned the broth into their bowls, leaving the floating teets behind. One cook was chewing energetically. I didn't keep track of that journey, but if he did swallow it, I'm sure he's still digesting it today. 

I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Sympathetic to my plight, the garde manger (the guy who does appetizers and salads) made me a nice little salad during service. Having access to all the parts, Mauro continued to present the weird and exotic when it was his turn to make family meal. So I got my own stash: peanut butter. 

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