Jay Whiteley reports on what he heard about staff meals.

Now that 2016 is in the books, the naive idealist in me wants to believe that all the hard work the hospitality industry has done over the holidays will be rewarded by management and owners. I’d like to think that the flus and colds that made the long hours ever longer, have settled down and everyone is ready for a new year and the challenges it will bring. Sometimes it is hard to recall the passion that got us all in the restaurant game in the first place, and it is never harder than it is during the holidays.

After many years of working in Whistler, the holidays took on a totally new meaning for me. It was the time put your head down and get shit done. Almost everyone I worked with didn’t have family close and the long hours cemented our relationships. But it was during our staff meals that we all truly got to know each other.Since I inquired about who eats what during staff meal, I was overwhelmed and grateful for all who responded. Thank you. And for all the front of house people I asked when I went out to different restaurants, thank you.What did I learn? Staff meal is either really good, really bad, or doesn’t happen at all. Waiters in Michelin star restaurants, no stars and places that wish they had a star, all said something similar. The connection that food makes is hard to replace. At a time when most restaurants are having a hard time finding qualified staff, nothing helps to bring a team together, and retain the good ones, like a staff meal.

As a patron in all the places where I asked about staff meal, it was a nice to have a deeper connection with whoever was serving me. Everyone had a story, good and bad, and everyone was eager to talk about it. Next time you’re eating at a restaurant and want to get the know the staff a little more, ask about staff meal.

I spoke to a waiter at a Michelin star restaurant and was told that they eat at 3:30 and service goes until after midnight most nights. I was told pasta day is the best day because the waiters can squirrel food away until later in the shift.Another person who wished to remain anonymous told me about a dirty trick the kitchen staff once played:

“Years ago while I was working at a very high end restaurant, I was very greedy and why not. A piece of pan seared Rainbow Trout was offered as a staff meal. I should have known better. I was sick for days afterwards, had to call in sick and the kitchen staff were aware of the cause. Haven’t had a staff meal since.”

However there is hope in some fine dinning restaurants.  Cameron Dryburgh, currently the General Manager at the CN Towner, recalled his time at Splendido: “Back when chowhound was a bit more relevant, a thread was started on the best Mexican Food in Toronto. Splendido Mexican Night staff meal got a mention as the best Mexican in the city. People asked online and over the phone about how to crash it. Courtesy of Geoff O’Connor, best Mexican chef in the city.”Where is Geoff O’Connor now? And wasn’t Splendido one of Toronto’s best restaurants? Could feeding their staff have something to do with that distinction? [chefdb.com says O’Connor is at Nota Bene. – Ed.]

Restaurants are what connect us, and though ownership and themes are different at each one, feeling appreciated is no different whether you’re in Toronto, Chicago or in cottage country. Jennifer McConnell told me a story of her time in Ciboulette et Cie Midland, Ontario: “As part of employment for all staff, including kitchen and back of the house we are offered unlimited coffee or tea along with any salad, soup or vegetarian option and a huge array of baked goods daily…we are a well feed happy bunch.”Jennifer has been there for seven years! That is a lifetime at one restaurant in this business. Could being well looked after have something to do with that?

Laura Waters was also well looked after at the restaurant she worked at: “I worked at a kosher restaurant for a while. The place closes for Passover, and the rule is all the food must be removed from the restaurant during this time. So after service on the night before closing, everything in the kitchen got cooked and we sat down to a massive feast.”

The one common theme I got from people I spoke to, read from (and experienced myself) is that very few things make staff feel welcomed and appreciated like staff meal. Some of the more progressive restaurants speak about staff retention and continually training new staff is a large part of operational costs that could be offset by looking after the staff who are already working hard to make the restaurant great. Whatever the perks are of working at any given restaurant it is nice to be considered and appreciated by management and ownership. A staff meal is only a small part of that, but can go a very long way.