Inside Staff Meal at Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch: Lessons Learned

by Katherine Sacks
Katherine Sacks
February 2012



Staff Meal Details

Chef Jason Paolini weighs in.

Staff meal food costs:
We set up a separate category in the budget for family meal. Every day the sous chef is responsible for costing out everything that went into family meal, so at the end of week, we know the overall cost of family meal. Each restaurant is given $200 a week, and typically a family meal will cost us $50 to $70 a day. Because we do cost out, we dial it in so we have enough for everyone but not leftovers.

Size of staff meal:
50 people

Time of staff meal:
We have a set schedule; we eat at 3:45pm and by 4:15pm we're done.

Worst staff meal:
It was just boiled ground beef with pasta. It was supposed to be spaghetti, but there was no tomato sauce. It was just pasta, with no butter, no seasoning. It was bad.

Favorite staff meal ever:
Usually the best are sort of toward the holidays. For New Year’s Eve, we'll try to put up the whole spread: collard greens, black eyed peas, fried chicken, desserts, and biscuits.

Too many chefs proclaim “Never stop learning,” but then fall victim to busy schedules packed with media appointments, book tours, and food festivals. At Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene and next-door Holeman & Finch Public House, not only is learning alive and well, it’s a built-in part of a staff meal meant to not only feed the crew, but also educate.

Staff Meal

The chef behind both locations, Linton Hopkins is an ardent leader in the farmers market movement and advocate for Southern ingredients, and he encourages growth within his team by inviting the crew for weekly video sessions (think food porn like Inventing Cuisine) or book club meetings (Eric Ripert’s On The Line and Eleven Madison Park were recent reads). And for their joint staff meals (swapping three days a week at each location), cooks choose a monthly cookbook to dive into for culinary inspiration. Taking cue from Chicago’s recent restaurant craze, December was devoted to Escoffier, and the chefs ate their way through Beef Madeira, Chicken Bordelaise, and Carrot Velouté.

Staff Meal

This special kind of staff meal offers more than literary value. The cooks not only make the meal as nutritional as possible using produce from their pantry (local and seasonal!), they also try to prepare something they want to eat (it may sound obvious, but after talking to a handful of chefs about their worst meals ever, we know it's not always true). And the cooks—even professional cooks—can still learn a lesson or two from the cookbooks. “It’s a great tool to use,” explains Executive Sous Chef Jason Paolini, who helps Hopkins oversee the inner workings of both restaurants. “We had our cooks do research in Escoffier, and it gets all the cooks in the habit of reading a recipe.”

While reading a recipe might seem like a fairly basic task, Paolini points out that every cook interprets the instructions differently—especially from a book like Escoffier’s. “When we first started it, some of the recipes didn't turn out that great. A lot of that had to do with the cooks interpretations,” says Paolini. “Once we told them to stop interpreting the recipes, the dishes came out better. It really gives you an idea of how recipes work.”

The New Year brought old-school charm into these Southern kitchens with The Joy of Cooking, along with more standardized methods. “That book has really solid recipes,” says Paolini of the traditional housewife tome, “and it’s also home cooking, which is favorable for staff meal.” Veering away from December’s turn-of-the-century French recipes, the chefs enjoyed more familiar dishes in January and February, digging into Irma Rombauer classics like chicken picatta, stovetop macaroni and cheese, and even Southern-inflected greens with ham hock. As for March, the cooks have yet to decide on a new book, but Paolini hints The Professional Chef: The Culinary Institute of America may just invade their staff meal next.

Whatever cookbook it’s based on, the Restaurant Eugene/Holeman & Finch meal has transformed the typical staff meal food pyramid. “Cooking from a book like this has made us put more thought into family meal and incorporate different styles of cooking,” says Paolini. “We not only think about the protein, vegetable, and starch, but we also make chutneys, quick breads, sauces, pickles, and other little fun things.” Adding to the excitement, Hopkins, Paolini, and team started a friendly competition between the two restaurants to see which could create the best meal based on the chosen cookbook. Aptly named the Colander Cup, as in all things restaurant related, the prize is mostly bragging rights. And, of course, a good meal.