For a cook on the line, climbing up the career ladder of the brigade de cuisine is no easy feat - especially when the daily grind is often a single repetitive task amid a boisterous jumble of noise and heat.
But there's a moment, at least once a day, when self-expression is encouraged and ingenuity is rewarded: staff meal.
"You're working hard and learning everything that you can learn, and hoping that eventually you'll get the chance to do something so the chefs will take notice," says Pub & Kitchen executive chef Eli Collins, who worked as a line cook in multiple restaurants in Philadelphia before moving up to the sous chef position at Daniel Boulud's DBGB Kitchen and Bar in New York. "Staff meal can be a chance to do that."
Traditionally prepared by line cooks, staff meal (also known as family meal) is essentially the opportunity to prepare food for coworkers. "Some people look at staff meal as a pain . . . but I always took it as a chance to cook for people I care about," says Damon Menapace, executive chef of the forthcoming restaurant/bar/butcher shop/cooking school Kensington Quarters. "I never wanted to just put up crappy food - I wanted it to be special."
The very nature of staff meal - a lunch or dinner that has to be prepared and served quickly, to a large group of potentially tough critics, often using leftovers - means it's the perfect proving ground for a cook hoping to advance to chef status, says Aila DeVowe, executive sous chef at Bar Ferdinand in Northern Liberties.
"It's a great challenge, and it really showcases what chefs need to do every day, which is to make creative meals that are cost-effective. You want to impress the staff and enjoy a bit of freedom to show your skills," she says.
Those early moments can feel like a breakthrough, especially when the crowd is appreciative. When Damon Menapace was junior sous chef at the now-closed Oceanaire, he concocted a Buffalo-style meat loaf studded with blue cheese and slathered with hot sauce, topped with a cooling celery slaw and stuffed into sandwich rolls for a quick and hearty repast.
"I was always trying to stay creative, and I would look for recipes in magazines that I could twist into a staff meal."
The ultimate success, of course, is when a staff meal dish is deemed good enough for the specials list - a coup for any aspiring chef. DeVowe's mushroom puree under ramps and her fresh ricotta gnocchi made with homemade cheese are examples of two dishes that had their genesis during staff meal and were eventually served to guests at Bar Ferdinand.
Similarly, a recent chicken cheesesteak staff meal from line cook Pierre Jean-Baptiste caught Collins' attention; it was eventually gussied up with homemade bread and served as a special.
Sometimes, however, the line cook's chance to shine might come on the fly - perhaps early in the morning, or during a stolen hour when the kitchen slows down.
"When I was starting out, I might have a few ingredients sitting around my station, and if I had an extra half-hour here and there, I'd throw together something for myself to eat. Sometimes the chef would come along and see what I was doing," Collins says.
He remembers preparing one such salad at DBGB that featured roasted and raw endive, brown butter beet puree, lightly pickled beets, citrus sauce, and cured duck shavings.
"Looking back, it was completely over the top, with something like 12 elements to the dish," he says. "I was at that stage where I wanted to use every technique I'd ever learned. When it made the menu, it was a hit - everyone loved eating that salad - but I know the cooks hated to actually make it."
The defining moment could come when the chef is away or out sick. Mario Rodriguez-Feo, executive chef of Isabella in Conshohocken, recalls covering for the chef one night when he was out and making shrimp croquetas for owner Tom Richter, a dish he was pretty sure made a good impression, since he eventually landed the chef position.
A little friendly rivalry can also provide cooks with an excuse to showcase their talents. At the Oceanaire, Menapace says, the kitchen staff would hold their own Iron Chef competitions on slower nights, with the sous chef acting as judge.
Still, such games could not take place when there was an expectant 12-top to feed, or the sauté cook was in the weeds.
"When it's Saturday night and it's crazy and busy, just getting your food done on time, seasoned properly and keeping your station cleaned is enough," Menapace says. "Ultimately, those are your skills, and that's what you need to be good at as a line cook."
And even a spectacularly delicious experiment won't help a new cook advance if they don't have the drive, ambition, and humility to keep pushing and learning.
"If you can't cook, you won't get the next job. Period," says DeVowe. "But you also have to have the respect of your peers, and people who are willing to give you the opportunity." She credits executive chef David Ansill for mentoring her and helping push her career forward.
In any case, any moments of ad hoc-cookery glory are as short-lived as the next slip that comes in, and the next dish that has to be expedited.
"Since I was about 20 years old, I've been telling myself that success would be through learning and working hard and trying not to worry too much about how much I make or the hours I'm putting in, because it's a grind," Menapace says. "Even now, I know there's always more to learn."
"It's a strange career," Rodriguez-Feo says. "A lot of it is luck, a lot of it is talent, and there's some [BS] in there, too. But doing a good job consistently, that's what counts the most."