When Ladro Gertrude opened in Fitzroy eight years ago, it was a five-night-a-week operation and co-owner Ingrid Langtry recalls the time when sitting down together for staff meals before service was straightforward. “We would all sit down together around 4.30pm and have a meal,” she says. “It was an open format and if wine reps came in or suppliers, we’d encourage them to sit down for a moment and eat something.”
There is now a second restaurant, Ladro Greville in Prahran, and both eateries open on some days for lunch. So while staff meals are just as important, they need to be a little more coordinated. “It’s so important to come together at some point of the day,” continues Langtry. “On sunny days we might sit in the laneway of either restaurant or pull up a table in a quiet part of the restaurant if customers are still there, as long as everyone gets fed.”
Staff meals are as much a part of a restaurant’s culture as the food on the plate, the welcome at the door, the design choices and mood in the room. In fact, it could be argued that staff meals are the foundation of all those factors, because happy staff equates to a happy restaurant.
Joseph Abboud of Rumi in Brunswick East describes the staff meal as “a must”. “The kitchen staff sit down at 4.45pm every day,” he says, “and then we do it in phases.” Abboud coordinates the kitchen hands (who sweep and mop the kitchen while the chefs are eating) to eat after service and allows the front-of-house team to have breaks later in the night. “It’s based on pragmatism,” he says, “but it’s a very important part of the day and is the defining point for me. It means everything’s done in the kitchen and we’re getting ready for service.”
One of Melbourne’s larger restaurants, and one that’s incredibly busy during the summer, St Kilda’s Stokehouse, also takes a pragmatic but decidedly insistent view of feeding their large numbers of staff. General Manager Anthony Musarra says, “We serve brekkie at 10.30am and dinner at 5pm everyday. I think it’s a false economy if we don’t feed our staff. It creates harmony between front-of-house and kitchen, they spend some time together out of service.”
With a restaurant that operates at the pace of Stokehouse, there’s no official bread-breaking around a table, but there is space out the back or upstairs where staff can sit and have their meals – baked eggs and French toast for breakfast or pork loin, Turkish pides and lots of vegetables for dinner.
It’s often an extension of why people work in restaurants in the first place. Indeed, many hospitality staff have an innate love of feeding people and that simply translates to the staff table before the customers arrive. Scott Pickett from The Estelle in Northcote is driven by this idea. “People in our industry work long hours and feed other people great food and we can’t forget to feed ourselves.” The staff at The Estelle sit down at the bar each day at around 5.30pm and have dinner. “It’s important for us to have bonding time,” says Pickett, “and collect our thoughts. Sometimes we talk work, try a new dish, open a sample wine to see if it suits the menu. Other times we might talk personal stuff. It’s about being together and having some good food.”
Work at The Estelle and you may find a pasta dish or braise as your staff meal, while if Abboud is cooking at Rumi, it could well be the pilaf of the day bound with thick yoghurt and fried eggs and flatbread. “My ultimate comfort food,” he laughs. But there are exceptions. “If we’re all busy, mum will bring down some sambousik (pastry filled with lamb, pinenuts, onion) or a variation of kibbeh.”
At both Ladro restaurants, the dishes change regularly, from kofta, yoghurt and pides made from leftover dough to kedgeree. “Staff members often take the dishes with them when they move on, there’s always at least one hour spent cooking and preparing the staff meal,” she explains.
While Langtry was a student in the mid-90s, she worked at Stephanie’s in Hawthorn for a couple of years and the culture of the staff meal has been instilled in her. “As an employer I have an obligation to feed the customers and to feed our staff.” She says, summing it up perfectly. “I can’t imagine having a restaurant and not feeding everyone.”