Chef Craig Wallen weighs in.
Tickets to Spasso's "Family Meal":
Size of dinners:
15 to 25 people
Time of dinners:
Once a month on Tuesday nights; 7pm
Worst staff meal:
There is a dish that seems to show up in every place I have ever worked at one time or another. It is basically chicken breasts, cut up and boiled dry, with a can of tomato, onions, rice, and a couple of random vegetables thrown in for good measure. Just horrendous every time, but it will keep you alive.
Favorite staff meal ever:
I have gotten some good chicken parms and coconut curries from time to time, and if the Latin guys are feeling generous, they'll do up the tamales.
Staff meal is the time for calorie consumption, the breather before the big rush of dinner service. But in those few minutes of calm before the storm, it's also a moment of laughter, conversation, and bonding over the quirks and qualms of the typical professional kitchen. In some restaurants the meal becomes a cooking competition; in others, both the front and back of the house chip in on the prep duties. And in other restaurants, like New York City's Spasso, it's a way to focus on profits.
Spasso keys in on the familial warmth (and recent popularity) of staff meal with their open-to-the-public "Family Meal." Chef Craig Wallen opens up the idea of crew meal to local civilians (along with a $125 ticket price) with his themed dinners. "We're trying to emulate the togetherness of family meal," says Spasso Restaurateur Bobby Werhane. Targeting the fashion industry and Wall Street's "most discerning diners," Werhane wants to bring the idea of a big family meal to other industries. "We want to get a good mash-up of people together."
In the true family meal spirit, Wallen recently highlighted Milanese aperitivo cocktails and cuisine. (Italian restaurant family meals can stretch for hours and often include several bottles of vino). While the front section of Spasso remained business as usual—offering Wallen's classic antipasti and traditional pastas—a group of nearly 25 gathered in the restaurant's back area for a talkative hour of stuzzichini (Milanese bar snacks, including creamy mortadella and beschamel croquettes) tipples, and Wallen's three-course meal.
Although crew meal is rarely a coursed event, Wallen's comforting foods add just enough of that familial charm—hearty pasta dishes and a friendly atmosphere—to replicate the kitchen feel. And, while "Family Meal" at Spasso is really bonafide dinner party, it also sells the idea of staff meal to its public audience. And packs the house on a Tuesday evening, a double win for the kitchen.