The most exclusive restaurant meal is the one the staff eat

Gisela Alesbrook prepares chicken curry at Hotal Colombo – a staff-only dish that led to the opening of the Sri Lankan restaurant.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

It’s by far the most exclusive meal in a restaurant, but it’s not made for the ordinary diner.

The daily staff meal – also known as the family meal – is a time-honoured ritual where the entire team, from the dishwashers to the executive chef, sit down to eat together.

The meal, provided free of charge, is viewed as a form of bonding and is usually served in the afternoon, before the dinner service.

This year, the staff meal has assumed more importance than ever. Thousands of restaurant workers have lost their jobs in Hong Kong alone, and the prospect of having a delicious, hot and freshly cooked meal is not one that’s taken for granted.

Another quirk of the family meal is that a restaurant’s staff generally take it in turns to cook it, meaning that kitchen porters and cleaners also get to display their culinary prowess. Sometimes, the meals staff eat end up on the menus that regular diners can order from.

Alesbrook’s chicken curry at Hotal Colombo. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

“The team we work with is our family, especially in the current climate,” says Gisela “Gizzy” Alesbrook, head chef of Hotal Colombo, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Hong Kong’s SoHo nightlife area which is part of the Black Sheep Restaurants group.

“We all sit down together at the same time, at 3pm before service. Floor staff, cleaners, kitchen staff, we all eat the same meal.

“This is a family-style restaurant because how you show affection in Sri Lanka is through food, the meal you prepare for your family.

''As it’s tougher times, we also started doing a staff meal for the whole Black Sheep Restaurants team, where any employee can come and get a meal – you don’t even have to be on duty.”

Staff meals help cement a restaurant’s sense of community, lift spirits, and provide energy and motivation for a busy shift ahead, Alesbrook says.

“We are a small team of five and all take turns to cook – our team is Chinese, Nepali, Sri Lankan and Indian. The floor team and the dishwasher cook, too – [the dishwasher is] Nepali and makes food just as she cooks it for her family.”

It was a fragrant chicken curry that Alesbrook cooked for a staff meal in 2012 at a now-closed Black Sheep restaurant, Boqueria, that led to the opening of Hotal Colombo.

“We were a staff of maybe 15 different nationalities and everyone would take turns to cook the family meal,” she says. “I was always going to cook what I know best: chicken curry, spinach and rice.

''[Black Sheep group founders] Chris [Mark] and Asim [Hussain] had never had Sri Lankan food before, and I remember them saying, ‘Maybe one day we’ll start a Sri Lankan restaurant for you.’ Six years down the line, we opened Hotal Colombo.”

Alesbrook says staff meals help cement a restaurant’s sense of community. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Alesbrook’s curry includes cinnamon, star anise, black cardamom, ginger, garlic and powdered spices – but the key ingredient is time.

“There’s already a thick gravy, but we always marinate the meat the day before. We then cook it for an hour and let it sit for at least an hour – you never serve it the day you make it, it has to sit a whole day or overnight.”

Two-Michelin-star Écriture occupies the penthouse of H Queen’s building in Hong Kong’s Central district, where executive chef Maxime Gilbert celebrates exquisite Japanese and European produce, preparing ingredients using contemporary French techniques.

Maxime Gilbert, executive chef of Écriture. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Gilbert says his team rarely have time to sit down together and eat – but they still get to enjoy delicious, creative dishes as they work in-between busy meal services.

“We are seven in the kitchen so it’s organised madness – sometimes I need to tell them to eat! Of course, they all love to eat. Today was sautéed rice with leftover chicken – we kept the trimmings and stir-fried them with sweetbreads.”

The team take it in turns to cook the staff meal, but they’re also not averse to occasionally ordering in.

“Whoever is free and wants to do something cooks. Sometimes, I’ll pay to order in Chinese or pizza, or we’ll make dishes like aubergine with mince, bolognese with sweetbreads and veal, lasagne, whatever we have in the fridge.

''There’ll be a Philly cheesesteak made with a block of Cantal [a hard cheese from France], burgers made from leftover wagyu, even ikura [red caviar] and uni.”

If it’s surprising that decadent, expensive ingredients make it into the staff meal, it’s because it’s a reflection of an issue that hugely frustrates Gilbert, as well as those across the industry – guests making reservations and then not showing up.

He explains that the restaurant’s high-end produce is flown in several times a week. When guests do not show, the restaurant loses money and is left with uneaten produce.

“The more no-shows, the more food for the staff meal at dinner,” Gilbert smiles, but it’s clearly bittersweet.

Gilbert prepares a lamb leg at Écriture. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

One dish from a staff meal which made it to the menu at Écriture – albeit only “off menu”, meaning you have to ask if it is available that day – is an indulgent sandwich crammed with the finest roast lamb.

“When I was cutting the gigot d’agneau [leg of lamb] we have trimmings. Normally, we would eat it with potato purée or gratin but I decided to make a sando. I always exaggerate when I make something!

“This is lamb from Aveyron in southern France. There are only a few farmers doing it and then only a really small selection are chosen by my butcher. We debone it, season it, roll it and tie with string. We [brown] every side then put it in the oven. Every 10 minutes, we baste it and turn it.

“When removed [from the oven], we put it on a rack and cover it with butter, garlic, thyme and rosemary. The temperature is beautiful but it needs to rest, ideally overnight, but for a minimum of three hours.”

The trimmings from this lamb are sandwiched between two toasted slices of brioche, making for the one of the finest sandwiches you’ll ever eat.

A lamb leg prepared at Écriture. Trimmings from it were used in a sandwich that proved so popular with staff, it made it onto the public menu too. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

At the modern Chinese diner Little Bao in Causeway Bay, chef-owner May Chow, Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2017, says: “I think staff meals, especially in the Chinese tradition, are to nourish. It’s important for chefs to know how to take care of and cook well for our team.

“It’s also a time for them to get together, sit down and be in each other’s company. There’s always veggies, meats, rice or noodles. Generally, it’s quite Chinese with some pasta and such in-between.”

Chow explains that while the kitchen team rotates responsibility for their daily meal, which they eat from 4pm-5pm, a group of non-staff members plays a big part in the meal.

“My family join in as well. I think it’s cute when my mum is curious and always asks, ‘What are you guys eating today?’ or ‘What’s smelling so good?’ It’s a nice, homey touch. My family really loves our team. My mum stops by Little Bao almost every day.

“She is such an amazing person and just loves them. So she will bring hot sauce, home-made wontons, mooncakes, or cook extra dishes during special Chinese holidays.”

The hot sauce Chow’s mother makes has made it onto the Little Bao menu, and is added as the final touch to its pork belly noodles.

“The hot sauce has been in my family for decades, so to see [the cooks] scoop it up to add to everything is really nice. It’s also sweet to see how, after appreciating it for months or years, it goes on a menu.

“I think the guys can feel a connection with it. I sourced this amazing local Chinese noodle from a noodle maker in North Point.

We cook it in our signature five-spice soy braise and seaweed kombu butter. It’s layered with our pork belly, then paired with the hot sauce for its garlicky, black bean, spicy umami flavour. It’s awesome.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.