Family matters: A creative staff meal starts—or ends—the night right

At Tavola, family meal--the pre-service dinner for restaurant staff--is a chance to bond. 
Photo: John Robinson At Tavola, family meal–the pre-service dinner for restaurant staff–is a chance to bond. Photo: John Robinson

The family meal is a restaurant tradition, where chefs take turns cooking a meal for the entire staff to dine together before service. At an Italian restaurant like Tavola, you might expect that meal to be a fat bowl of pasta and maybe some garlic bread. But, in fact, one of the more memorable family meals was fried chicken and cornbread, courtesy of executive chef Dylan Allwood.

“I first went to Tavola because one of my very good friends from high school was sous chef,” says Allwood, referring to his friend Vinny Falcone. “We always wanted to open a fried chicken shack, and he was going to be moving to D.C., so Michael [Keaveny, owner] said, ‘You guys should do a pop-up.’”

To prep for the pop-up last Halloween, which they named Vindilly’s, they experimented for Tavola staff.

“We spent a solid three weeks or so just feeding everybody chicken,” he says.

For Tavola general manager and wine director Priscilla Martin Curley, family meal means a lot.

“Family meal is extremely important to me as a restaurant manager. Whether before or after the shift, it’s an opportunity for the entire staff to sit down together and have some bonding time,” she says. “The quality of the family meal is, in my experience, one of the best ways to improve morale in a restaurant staff. Think about it: You have an entire staff of people and their absolutely favorite thing to do is eat and drink.”

She says it’s a great time for chefs to showcase their skills, as Allwood did a few weeks ago when he made each of his colleagues a breaded and fried veal chop (“as large as a plate,” Curley says), covered in Marsala-creamed mushrooms. Or when sous chef Alicia Simmons made Philly cheesesteak pasta. Even Curley herself gets in on the act.

“I lived in Chicago, so one day I made Chicago-style hot dogs for everyone,” she says. “I had to wrestle the ketchup from the staff’s hands because that is not allowed on Chicago dogs. And when we have time we will make pizza dough from scratch and use all the pasta mise en place to make delicious sheet pan pizzas.”

While some kitchen staffs use the family meal as an opportunity to experiment, others, like Duner’s in Ivy, use it as a way to get their servers up to speed on new menu items.

“Since our menu changes so frequently, I try to prepare one or two of the new dishes for the pre-shift meeting,” says executive chef Laura Fonner. “It gives them a chance to taste what’s new on the menu and also a chance for me to perfect my plating of the dish and any last-minute adjustments I may need to make.”

Melissa Close-Hart, executive chef at Junction in Belmont takes the concept of “family” to heart.

“It’s very hard work, both physically and mentally, so if I can help keep the body and mind fueled by providing a staff meal, I am happy to cook for my ‘family,’” Close-Hart says. “Sometimes I have used family meal as a place to try new recipes, but more than not, I prepare what I’m craving to eat.”

For Tavola’s Allwood, sometimes the best family meal comes delivered. “If it’s really busy we’ll order Dominos or Chinese—which we like more because we don’t have to cook it. Anything we don’t have to make is always nice.”

Note: Tami Keaveny, C-VILLE’s arts editor, is a co-owner of Tavola.