Enjoying a meal at a restaurant is something many of us are familiar with. At any given moment, we can find a spot that will cook us up breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Generally, we are given a menu of options that have been carefully designed and tested by a chef, are served these dishes, and are then sent on our way.
The experience of dining at a restaurant can be thrilling and is almost always accessible to any paying customer. But there is one meal that takes place within the walls of all your favorite restaurants, that only those who work there are able to consume and enjoy.
The “Family Meal” is one that is shared by the staff of a restaurant. While almost all restaurants engage in this meal ritual, the diversity of the experiences is immense.
We partnered with one of our favorite photographers, Henry Hargreaves to pull back the curtain on the most exclusive meal at restaurants around the world.
Our first stop of course is in New York City. More specifically, Brooklyn, where the tiny yet magical, Okonomi japanese restaurant resides. Tara Norvell, co-owner and co-executive chef sat down with us to discuss their beautiful staff meal.
We practice a philosophy called Mottainai which means we don’t waste any food – we try to use everything we buy. We always save the heads and all the bones. Usually we make broth with it, but if we don’t need to make broth, we will eat it for “family”. This is a local porgy. Porgy is a very underutilized fish because it’s very small and it requires a lot of work -getting pin bones, taking skins off… A lot of people don’t use it. I never see porgy on the menu unless it is served like whole and fried. It’s really a delicious and special fish. So we have been using it a lot lately. I think it should be one of the nicest fish on the market, but the market is determined by the customer demands and a lot of people aren’t aware of it or just don’t want to use them.
A lot of fish have teeth. You don’t really think about them or see them, but porgy especially. They have rows of them. They eat a lot of small shellfish and shelled animals like crab. Their teeth break through the shells and they end up taking on the flavor of the things they eat. To me it tastes just like crab, the texture of the skin and meat.
It’s like that with seafood. With meat the animals are on farms and are eating the same thing, but fish are eating different things in the water. It’s really interesting when you eat a blue fish that eats a lot of squid. You get to learn all those flavors. It’s totally seasoned by nature.
Because the porgy is a very small fish, we break it down and cut off sashimi from each loin. But at the end of the loin, which happens very quickly, the tail gets too chewy. We usually cut down to the tail ends, and then we don’t serve the tail ends but we save them for “family”. That’s a thing we can always have for family, sashimi tails.
I think all of our family meals are really special because we appreciate all the foods we have so much. It’s especially exciting when you find a new purpose for things like the outside of a cabbage leaf or the inside of a cauliflower stalk. You are repurposing. It’s always nice when you can surprise yourself. It’s like, “We cannot waste this even more!” That in itself is rewarding. It’s exciting because you do learn new things.
We always save the stalk of the cauliflower for “family”. We make it into pickles. The pickles are so good. So now I think we should add them to the pickles we serve to customers, but then I think oh man, then we will lose it for family!
Spring is really really great for produce. We start to see different produce everyday. It’s great for seafood as well. Seafood has a lot of stored fat from the winter, and they also have a lot of eggs and sperm. It’s not always enough to use for the restaurant so we save it for “family”. It’s really a delicacy and really special. So with spring you get all this spawning happening.
The first time I had to make “family” I was very very scared. You are cooking for your team. When you are cooking for your customers, there is a bit of a comfort blanket. You know they have ordered what they want and they are getting what they ordered. When you are cooking for your teammates and family, you are putting yourself out there. In the beginning it was really scary, then it was the greatest thing ever. It’s the only time you cook for the people you work with. It’s really for them. If you think of it like that, it’s one of the most important meals you make in your day.
At other restaurants I worked for, there was so much stuff to use. As a cook that was really fun, it was like, “what am I going to make today?”, I love feeding people and nourishing them. Really for me what touched home was showing them, that you don’t have to throw things away. I think that was something Yuji and I bonded over when we started working together. I always felt like if I can show a person another way of eating something they won’t waste it.
We generally laugh a little and talk about service and what the next thing we have to do is in terms of prep. It’s work talk. But we are really like a family. We hang out outside of the restaurant. One of our cooks, Cass has an art show today, so we talked about that. It’s a group of friends, it’s small, it’s fast.
The porgy head is one of my favorites and the sea trout ribs. I marinated them with sweet soy. The ribs of the fish are sometimes too fatty. So sometimes we have those to eat. Seat trout is my favorite fish. In a restaurant I would order that, so sometimes I can’t believe I get to eat it for family meal.
We save all the fat and braising liquid. We save everything and reconstitute it. Everything that we do is really sort of prepared for us by nature. Because we practice Mottainai, we don’t just not waste it, we showcase it.
In some ways we save the best things for family.
It’s (Kagua) a Japanese craft beer made in Belgium. This company perfected their recipe and their whole process, and they found a brewery in Belgium that can replicate it. It is flavored with sansho and yuzu. It goes really well with our food. We are one of the few restaurants that carry it. Normally we don’t have them for family, but we share a beer. Having a beer during “family” is necessary. It is part of letting off steam.
Co-owner / co-executive chef
Head chef of Yuji ramen
Co-owner / co-executive chef
Sashimi plate: Boston mackerel and porgy tails, squid and sea trout
Roasted sea trout ribs
Porgy heads and collars
Sansho pickled radish skin and cabbage centers
Baked egg omelet
Greens sautéed in ankimo fat