Cooking for the kitchen crew

Firebake Boneless chicken marinated in yoghurt and spice mix (left) and Moosehead Penne with chicken (right).
Firebake Boneless chicken marinated in yoghurt and spice mix (left) and Moosehead Penne with chicken (right).PHOTO: FIREBAKE / MOOSEHEAD

Cooking for the crew at eateries is a time honoured tradition, and a chance for junior chefs to show what they can do.

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Ragout of wild boar and pappardelle, and braised pork belly with fried rice and baby kai lan, are dishes you will not find on the menu at Bacchanalia, but they are what the restaurant and kitchen staff eat for lunch in between service.

Over at Tamashii Robataya, the staff tuck into home-cooked prawn noodles, mee hoon kueh and chicken rice.

At a recent lunch at Salted & Hung, the fare was steamed rice, fried chicken and salad.

Bacchanalia head chef Luke Armstrong recalls that during his early days as a chef, "the majority of meals were skipped or shovelled down at a rapid pace. There wasn't much value put into the idea of a staff meal".

These days, it is a different story. Restaurants make sure their staff are properly fed. "There is a huge focus on details in the restaurant. How can you expect staff to really deliver if they don't eat well," says chef Armstrong.


An example of a staff meal at SPR MRKT: Rice with pork belly, omelette and vegetables. PHOTO: SPR MRKT

"Getting everyone involved in the cooking builds team spirit and inculcates the idea of service and hospitality internally," says Stephane Istel, chef-partner at Bar-Roque Grill & Bar.

Usually the chef in charge decides what to cook, but some head chefs make it a point to ensure the meal is nutritious.

Salted & Hung head chef, Drew Nocente, says: "We always work with a base of one protein, one vegetable or salad, and one starch to ensure each meal is balanced."


Drew Nocente, head chef at Salted & Hung with his team at their staff lunch. PHOTO: SALTED & HUNG

At modern Sichuan restaurant, Birds of a Feather, the budget per head for each meal is about S$4.50. Eugene See, its chef de cuisine says: "The kitchen also uses leftovers from the daily mise en place before they go bad and these are the bonus ingredients for the day."

Firebake sous chef Fariz Ramli says most of the time, "we use whatever ingredients we have on hand, such as fish and meat trimmings. A staff meal is about how to turn scraps into gold". Some of the staff meals served at Firebake include pasta with Swiss smoked bacon and pork trimmings with Portobello mushrooms.

Chef Fariz adds that Firebake also caters to staff who take the initiative to create their own recipes using specific ingredients within reasonable costs, such as lamb rendang or Korean bibimbap. "In such cases, I will pre-order the necessary ingredients required for these dishes."

Sometimes staff meals are also a chance to introduce new dishes to the kitchen team. When Bar-Roque's new restaurant manager, Nicolas Schwartz joined, he shared traditional dishes from his hometown of Côte d'Azur. Subsequently, pissaladière was added to the main Bar-Roque menu.

Chefs say that apart from keeping bellies full, staff meals are important to keep the team happy at work.

"I believe staff welfare is important and serving them a good lunch will encourage the team to do better. In return, they are motivated to cook well for diners," says chef-owner Patrick Tan of Tamashii Robataya. He gets his chefs to do the cooking, and sometimes, his wife, Nicole, who is also the restaurant manager cooks, too. Her prawn noodles are a hit, as she collects the heads of the Japanese sweet prawn, amaebi, to make the stock.

Konstantino Blokbergen, founder of Firebake says that a restaurant is only as strong as its weakest link. "Staff meals are often a neglected link, so for all staff members to make an extra effort to raise the bar in quality a little higher every day, that can brighten everyone's day at work tremendously," he says.

Staff meals are often served after lunch service, and the staff take this opportunity to bond with their colleagues under more relaxed conditions.

"The staff meal is a very important part of our day, and everyone looks forward to it. It is a great way for the whole team to bond and have a laugh outside of service," says chef Nocente. "Most good restaurants will have a staff meal together, as chefs think it is a good way to bring the kitchen team together. After all, your brigade is like your family."

And expectations are high.

Chef Blokbergen says that for many classic restaurants and hotels in Europe, the responsibility for staff meals is the traditional training ground for young apprentices starting out in their culinary careers.

"Such initial assignment of staff meals can be quite stressful, as it is often the first time the apprentices prove themselves to the rest of the kitchen team. They earn respect by daring to take on such challenges and by showing willingness to deliver proper results to the rest of the team," he says.

Seumas Smith, head chef of Moosehead, says staff meals are also a good way to see how chefs treat ingredients when cooking for their colleagues. He says: "It is important to treat all the produce and ingredients with care and respect. The staff meal is just as important as the food that goes out to the diner."

Joseph Yeo, chef-owner of SPRMRKT Kitchen & Bar says preparing these meals is a way to gauge the chef's skills and efficiency. Meals are expected to be ready within an hour, including prep time.

"This is a way for younger chefs to improve on time management skills, multi-task and to prioritise what to cook first." He recalls a trainee who cooked all the dishes, but the rice wasn't ready yet.

While most staff meals get the thumbs-up, there have been instances of slip-ups, such as rice not properly cooked or an overly salty dish.

Bar-Roque's chef Istel recalls his days working in St Tropez. "I was making a shepherd's pie and while making mash potatoes, a litre of milk dropped into it," he says. "In the end, it was not a pie anymore, but potato soup. But we still served it."