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Baltimore restaurant staffs bond, get creative with 'family meal'

For The Baltimore Sun

On a recent afternoon, servers at Woodberry Kitchen in Clipper Mill were folding napkins and preparing for guests when the signal came: "It's time."

They quickly queued up with the cooks and dishwashers to scoop up carbonara with bacon, a vegetarian version with asparagus and chard, kale salad, a berry shrub served in a lovely punch bowl and apple sorbet for dessert.

Soon, the sound system was playing The Wood Brothers, a folk group, singing, not ironically, "Luckiest Man," as the restaurant staff took their seats in the main dining room for a daily ritual called the family meal.

"We like to eat together," said Woodberry's assistant general manager John Norman. "It's a family experience."

But the meal does more than feed the staff.

"It promotes togetherness," said chef Raimund Hofmeister, the director of Stratford University's culinary arts and hospitality management programs in Baltimore and on other campuses. "The cooking staff associates with the service staff. It gets them interacting."

Not all restaurants are able to manage a staff, or shift, meal, but many area establishments do, following a longtime French tradition that has spread around the world. It has also inspired cookbooks like "Come In, We're Closed" by Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy, who peeked into some of today's top dining rooms.

"You judge the quality of the restaurant by the quality of the family meals," said executive chef-owner Thomas Zippelli of the Turn House in Columbia. "We spend time cooking for others, so it's nice to take the time to cook for us."

Each day at the Turn House, the staff breaks at 3:30 p.m. to share a meal, prepared by cooks who like to experiment. A green curry dish was so successful that it inspired a whole fish with curry sauce for the restaurant menu.

"It's a good time to mess around with recipes," Zippelli said.

The chef, who was previously a chef de partie (station chef) at Eleven Madison Park in New York City — recently named No. 1 by the World's 50 Best Restaurants organization — was schooled in the ways of the family meal while he worked there.

"The staff took it very seriously," Zippelli said. "We had meetings about it."

For instance, preparation for a corned beef Reuben started two weeks ahead of time with the corning of a brisket. On the day it was to be served to employees, fresh bread was baked for the sandwich.

But Hannah Ragan, director of operations at Foodshed, the restaurant group that oversees Woodberry Kitchen and other Spike Gjerde properties, knows not all family meals are thought-out preparations.

"It can be frozen pizza," she said.

That's not the case at Woodberry, where the staff gathers daily around 3:15 p.m. after helping themselves to a beautifully displayed buffet prepared by the kitchen.

"It's an opportunity to give back to the staff," Norman said. "And it hones people skills and team building."

It also makes the most of the restaurant's pantry.

"It's about utilization," said Woodberry's chef de cuisine Lou Sumpter. "We used leftovers from Sunday brunch instead of throwing them out."

That's the case at many restaurants, including Cinghiale in Harbor East, where executive sous chef Shane Freeland planned a recent dinner around a mistaken order of bean sprouts.

After an accidental delivery, the purveyor didn't want the sprouts back, so Freeland decided to make a salad for the family meal. He knew he had chicken thighs and legs on hand, and those ingredients evolved into Korean fried chicken.

"It depends on what's available," he explained about deciding what to make for the staff dinner.

On that day, as soon as Freeland shouted, "Food's up," the workers begin lining up in the kitchen and piling food on their plates, good-naturedly jostling eager eaters with, "Back of the line, buddy."

Some took seats at Cinghiale's gorgeous marble bar, a polished wonder from a 600-year-old slab from Rome. Several cooks kept prepping ingredients while downing their own food, standing up.

On other days, the kitchen turns out dishes like pasta, pork ragu, lasagna and chicken pot pie for the family meal.

Emily Chambers, a server at Cinghiale, appreciates the dinners and a chance to catch up with her colleagues.

"We work long hours. We don't get to stop midway," she said. "It charges us up for the evening."

Instead of a preservice family dinner, Thames Street Oyster House in Fells Point has its staff get-together after the last plates have been cleared around 11 p.m. (They also serve a small meal to employees between lunch and dinner.)

"It's a breather before wrapping up the night," said Candace Beattie, who owns the restaurant with partner-chef Eric Houseknecht. "It's a time for the front of house and the back of house to intermingle. Everyone can interact."

The employees spread out on the restaurant's second floor near the kitchen or sit outside on the back stairs to eat.

"It's a moveable feast," she said. "Depending on the evening, it can be a very lively 20 minutes or a quiet 20 minutes."

At The Elephant in Mount Vernon, the staff devours food made from scratch like stews, coconut curry chicken and ribs around 3 p.m. They are fans of taco Tuesdays and pizza Fridays, said Mallory Staley, a restaurant partner and general manager.

The line cooks and newer kitchen workers take turns preparing the meals and sharpening their skills under the guidance of executive chef Andy Thomas.

"We try to have fun with it," Staley said. "We take 15 minutes and sit down as a family in the atrium."

The communal setting unites the staff before a busy night.

"It's a way of bonding and getting to know each other," Staley said. "Food brings people together."

Whichever side of the table they're on.

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