Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)
Few diners ever see beyond the swinging doors of their favourite restaurants into the back of the house. Doing so means entering a whole new world – a hot, frantic yet perfectly orchestrated society of cooks, waitstaff, dishwashers and hosts, all who do their jobs almost invisibly, without seeking fame or attention from the clients they serve. It’s unusual to think about those hardworking men and women as diners as well – and with the pace of the job it’s often only in a few stolen moments that a meal can be wolfed down. Many establishments, especially the nicer table service ones, go out of their way to take care of their “family” of employees with the offer of a group meal before or after service. Staff often take turns cooking for their comrades to spread the workload and everyone sits together – without any reservations or “class” divisions of cook and waiter. Danny Meyer’s restaurants (Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and others) are some such establishments, and can no doubt attribute part of their success to the fact that the employees are well fed physically and mentally as a result. As an homage to the meals around the “family table”, Michael Romano, chef and partner of Meyer’s, penned Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home.
Family Table is a compilation of recipes, stories and informative vignettes from the world behind the kitchen door. Each recipe has a short foreword describing a key ingredient or method, and peppered throughout the full-colour photograph pages are personal recollections of or from staff members, adding a true “homey” touch to this hardcover work. The dishes themselves run from soup and salad to pasta, meat and fish, with sides, breads and even a few quick and easy sweet staff favourites. Many of the recipes that sound complex and too haute cuisine for home cooks (let alone rushed staff pre-dinner), but thankfully upon reading they mellow to a doable, if fancier than usual, weeknight meal. Not every recipe is quick to prepare, but those that take time can be made on a weekend and leftovers served mid-week or frozen for later.
Given that this is a book written by restaurateurs, however, the reader should expect a certain level of “coffee table” ambience in Family Table. The dishes are definitely adult-oriented, and usually serve 4-6, which while useful for dinner parties and the occasional birthday will likely fall by the wayside in a conventional household. If cost control is an issue, some recipes will be unapproachable as well (due to ingredients like Parmigiano-Reggiano and specialty ethnic items), though things like homemade Fresh Pasta Dough (p. 108) and Brisket with Red-Eye Gravy (p. 190) cost more time than pennies. Relatively inexpensive and quick recipes can be found in the mix, though, with most of the egg chapter and a Patty Melt (p. 172) looking like a safe bet in that regard.
Generally, Family Table is an international mix of meals, from Japanese Soba Salad with Miso Dressing (p. 84) to Moroccan Lamb Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce (p. 204), French Basic Brioche (p. 262) and Italian Mama Romano’s Lasagna (p. 105). More “American” items stud the pages as well, ensuring that there is something for everyone. Desserts smack of the homemade treats your mother may have made when you were a child, albeit a more refined version, and the stories from and about the pastry and bakery chefs ring of that “homey” passion and family bonds that tie the restaurants together.
I don’t think that Family Table will become an everyday cookbook for most people, being a little too fussy for the weeknight schedules we all have. That said, it is a great read for those looking for the personalities behind the brightly lit signs of the local restaurant, and for Sunday night dinners and the occasional family get together at the holidays, the recipes are a solid twist on home cooking. Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home enlightened and tempted me, and with luck one day I’ll have cause to serve up one of Romano’s colleagues’ meals in my own kitchen.Available on Amazon