Inside Staff Meal at Balena: A Staff Meal Challenge

by Katherine Sacks
Katherine Sacks
August 2012



Staff meal food costs:
We charge [our cooks] $2 a day; that goes into the family meal budget. Sometimes we order specifics, but nine times out of 10 we talk to the butcher and use chicken or pork based on what’s going on. I like to plan a day or two [ahead] so I can make the bread pre-ferments.

Size of staff meal:
40 to 45 people

Time of staff meal:
2:30pm Sat-Sun; 3pm Mon-Fri

Worst staff meal:
When I worked at a hotel, I was served the leftovers of the leftovers. It was not only bad, at least two times a week someone got food poisoning. I would just make something for the overnight cleaning crew. And the last place I worked, it was just raw chicken everyday; there was no care, zero interest. It was terrible.

Best staff meal ever:
I have to say it’s probably here. These have been consistently the best staff meals. My favorite so far has been the burgers I did on the wood grill. I made fresh buns. I don’t eat burgers that often, but these were good.

At Chicago's Balena, 2011 Rising Star Chef Chris Pandel's new Italian outpost, staff meal is such an important part of the day, the team has taken to documenting it in their own staff meal blog. And they have good reason to show off; staff meal at Balena is a worthy endeavor because the team behind it had enough poor family meal experiences among them to commit to making a change. "A lot of us worked together [at another Chicago restaurant], and the staff meal was pretty bad," says Balena's Head Baker Peter Becker. "If you cook like that for your team, what does it say about the food you are cooking for customers? So I kind of set the bar here."

Staff meal at Balena
Staff meal at Balena

The serious approach to staff meal was triggered by an initial rocky start at the Lincoln Park restaurant. "The second day it was a very disappointing staff meal, so I said this isn't happening any more," says Becker, who began challenging his crew to create the best meals they could. The team sources from a combination of staff funds (each employee is charged $2 a day) and in-house product, but what's most important to Becker is creativity. Scrap items like tomato water (created as part of the process for the pomodoro sauce), day-old pastas, and meat trim are all a regular part of the rotation. "Manipulating and using [product] in an interesting fashion," Becker says the staff creates everything from porchetta pho and tri tip quesadillas to white bean cassoulet.

Another key element that helps push the Balena meal into rock star territory (a bartender boasted "it's the best family meal ever"), is Becker's bready talent. "Fifty percent of the time I do fresh bread," he says, including garlic bread made with day-old loaves, fresh buns for chili dogs, and naan. "I've made naan six or seven times so far; it's the most requested," Becker says.

Chili Dog with House-made bun
Chili Dog with House-made bun

The Balena staff not only has their own Internet spotlight, but is also earning a serious reputation within the industry. "People say 'Oh, you guys are the ones with the family meal,'" says Becker. "We've even talked about getting stages just for family meal." That sets the bar even higher for the crew. "The pastry sous chef does the calendar," explains Becker. "She goes around and asks for ideas." Although the cooks often suggest easily replicable dishes like a favorite curry or Becker's naan, more often the not, the cooks challenge the each other. "Sometimes it just becomes a wish list."