My first real restaurant job, at the tender age of 21, was that of a line cook. I walked into Sweet Basil restaurant, in Vail, Colo., with no experience or formal training, and talked my way into the job. On my first day at work, I learned that one of my various responsibilities was to prepare the "shift meal," either a lunch or dinner for the entire staff of the restaurant, from the lowliest busboy to the chef, sous chef, and owner. No pressure. I survived, but it was as much of a challenge to come up with varying, interesting, not to mention edible meals as it was to set up and run the line, if not more so.
Thinking back to those days made me wonder how many places in Charleston serve shift meals to employees, and what those meals consist of. It's a little surprising, but there are plenty of places that don't serve anything at all. Some who don't provide a full-on meal will allow employees to order something off the menu at a discount, or perhaps serve the kitchen staff something while leaving the front-of-house to fend for themselves. Reasons for not serving the staff a meal are as varied as reasons for doing so — serving lunch and dinner without a break in between (so-called "continuous service"), or having a kitchen that is at capacity simply serving paying customers, for example. Some owners or upper management simply don't think it's important enough to take the time or expense to provide a meal for their staff. I think they're missing out on a fine opportunity to inexpensively show their staff that they care, to have a team-building moment once a day where everybody sits down, however briefly, and takes in a meal.
I visited two restaurants for their shift meals, as much to see what was on the plate as to observe the overall experience. I headed to Slightly North Of Broad, as I knew that the Maverick Group serves shift meals at all of their restaurants, and had an amicable conversation with chef Frank Lee. He says it just "feels right to break bread together" before a shift, and I have to say that I agree with him. Very similar to my experiences at Sweet Basil, the kitchen staff puts together a tasty meal with attention to other constraints. After all, it's good to use surplus ingredients, and one is certain to please the chef by not commandeering the most expensive ingredients at one's disposal.
Beyond that, there are time constraints — a meal served before a crazy dinner shift on Friday of the Wildlife Expo is likely to be simple and quickly prepared, while a sleepy Tuesday might give a cook time to do something more labor intensive. By and large, however, the cook responsible for that meal is given free rein to do what he or she pleases, with the only caveat the instant feedback from his fellow employees — variety and taste matter, and you're going to see exactly how well you did by how much of your meal is eaten, and how quickly.
At SNOB, I had a very enjoyable plate of Mexican meatballs in tomato sauce, with a side of just-fried tortilla chips, black beans, and salsa, with a heaping bowl of tossed greens in a light blue cheese dressing. A delicious way to start out a dinner shift at work, and the price was certainly right — free! As Chef Lee explained to me, this is a good chance for the kitchen to strut their stuff a bit, with some added benefits. Employees don't show up late clutching Burger King bags, or stumble through a shift bleary and hungry because they overslept. I will venture it also eliminates those stashes of half-eaten bread and cups of purloined soup that are the clandestine acts of ravenous servers. One hopes the staff realizes that their meals are an act of generosity not required of their employers, as well as a money- and time-saving convenience. I am sure that the "family-building" aspect of dining together pre-shift is lost on none of them.
Likewise at Basil restaurant (not to be confused with the aforementioned Sweet Basil), the Thai darling of Upper King Street. While only the kitchen eats for the lunch shift meal, everyone shares in the afternoon meal, and the kitchen usually has a bite at the end of the dinner shift as well. The reasoning here is simple — the back of the house is almost entirely foreign, and largely Asian. Finding the food they are accustomed to eating at midnight in downtown is near impossible, unless, of course, you are working in a restaurant that happens to serve exactly that. Plus, most of the kitchen folks work doubles, both lunch and dinner on a given day, so rather than leave for the short break between lunch and dinner, they make a day of it and stay straight through.
Chef Suntorn (or others, in his rare absence, and please call him Sunny) puts out a meal for all at about 4:15. Employees can make plates and eat during the pre-shift meeting. While the other meals for the back of the house tend to be a bit more hard core Asian, the afternoon meal is still fresh, tasty, and reflects Chef Sunny's skills every time. There is usually a vegetarian option, but after that, all bets are off. One meal might be ginger stir fry, right off the menu, next to a platter of green papaya salad and a spicy Basil stir-fry with tofu. You might get a sample of that night's new special. With a vast palette of ingredients in that kitchen, the options are tremendous.
On my visit to Basil's shift meal, Chef put up a huge Nam Sod, the classic minced-chicken-and-peanuts salad and a head of iceberg to scoop with, as well as a stir fry of tofu and vegetables in a delicate brown sauce studded with sesame seeds. When he saw photographer Nancy Santos taking a few photos for this article, he immediately whipped up a Pad Thai for her, got his photo snapped with it, and then handed it to her to eat. Such can be the generosity, yes, the family feeling of breaking bread (even if there is no bread served) together before the shift begins.
I have to admit, while I hated the burden of having to cook a private meal for 30 in addition to setting up my station for the night's service, it taught me a lot. It pushed me to innovate, sometimes to the point where I was showing up an hour early just to put something excellent together for my co-workers. It made me attempt dishes I had never considered making, and made me pay closer attention to what I was doing, both for the staff and for the customers (although I still think it's harder cooking for your boss — or your boss' boss — than a stranger). There's a big payoff, though, when everyone pulls up a chair in that soon-to-be-slammed dining room, wolfs down a plate of Chicken-a-la Line Cook, and starts his shift saying, "Damn, man, that was some terrific stuff — this is going to be a great night!" And for the shift meal cook, it already is.