Behind the Scenes of Our Staff Meals Cookbook

I visited every restaurant profiled in the cookbook I co-wrote with Christine Carroll entitled Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants. Our book went on sale this week which made it seem like an ideal time to share a few behind-the-scenes photos I captured during visits to 25 extraordinary restaurant staff meals. The experiences I had on the road perpetually inspired me and reinforced the importance time and again of this ritual embraced by restaurants around the world.

Ad Hoc: Yountville, California

Photographer Eric Wolfinger captures chef Dave Cruz bundling skirt steak and charred scallions together for a late night staff meal feast that included a Great Dane, the teary departure of one staff member, and the best chocolate peanut butter bars in the universe.

Annisa: New York, New York

Photographer Evan Sung and I had almost as much fun playing with chef Anita Lo’s shih tzus Mochi and Adzuki who frequently accompany her to the restaurant as we did shooting the staff meal at Annisa that day.

Arzak: San Sebastian, Spain

The staff photo comprised of dozens of loyal Arzak employees was difficult to capture from the median of a busy city street. Photos were shot whenever the traffic light at the end of the road turned red. But cars weren’t the only thing blocking the shot. Elena and Juan Mari are beloved fixtures in San Sebastian and it seemed that no one walking by could resist stopping to chat with the genial father and daughter duo. Who can blame them? When the photographer finally gave the thumbs up and yelled “Cut!” the staff erupted in a round of celebratory applause.

Au Pied de Cochon: Montreal, Canada

Chef Martin Picard’s ode-to-pork restaurant Au Pied de Cochon buzzed with the kinetic energy of its youthful, almost exclusively male staff; save for their sous chef Emily who kept her boys in line with a firm but loving hand.

The Bristol: Chicago

I staged with my friend Joe Frillman years ago at The Fat Duck. When I asked him who had the best staff meal in Chicago he replied without pause or deliberation: “Mine.” We Fat Duck stages tend to stick together and I took him at his word. On the day of my visit, I discovered that Joe was right; not only was The Bristol’s staff meal extraordinary, its owner and Executive Chef Chris Pandel (pictured to the left of Joe) was one of nicest guys on the planet. It was such a treat to shoot Joe at this staff meal after having shared so many with him at a wooden outdoor table in a quaint English village that seemed a million miles away from Chicago’s busy streets.

City Grocery: Oxford, Mississippi

The incredible staff meal at City Grocery was followed by dinner on the balcony of the restaurant with New Orleans based photographer Chris Granger and chef John Currence. Other people who joined us at the table that night included actress Joey Lauren Adams and Hunter S. Thompson’s former personal secretary who when asked by John, “How are you doing?” responded, “I’m not good. But I’m getting better.” When he walked away, John grinned and said to Chris and I, “That has been his response to that question for the past ten years.”

Cochon: New Orleans, Louisiana

Photographer Matthew Noel stepped up to the daunting challenge of arranging chef Stephen Stryjewski and the large staff of Cochon with his typical Southern grace.

Craigie on Main: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Photographer Ken Goodman once cooked for chef Tony Maws which made this shoot especially poignant for him. I met Ken years ago when I was in culinary school and he has always been a steadfast friend, which made this shoot especially poignant for me.

Dill: Reykjavik, Iceland

As people who know me will attest, I am obsessed with Iceland and the two men pictured here, Olafur Orn Olafsson and Gunnar Karl Gislason, have become two of my dearest friends. This staff meal was shot the night after Christmas which made it feel magical, the way Iceland always feels to me.

The Fat Duck: Bray, England

It felt extraordinary to return to The Fat Duck to shoot their staff meal after having staged there years before. This was the restaurant where I first learned to appreciate the virtue of the staff meal tradition and I was so grateful they agreed to participate in our book since the meals I enjoyed there hold such significance for me.

Frasca: Boulder, Colorado

Shooting Frasca with Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Marc Piscotty was such a pleasure.

Grace: Portland, Maine

No, we didn’t begin the day praying in a church for a successful shoot. The restaurant Grace is housed in one.

The Herbfarm: Woodinville, Washington

The Herbfarm was the very first staff meal photo shoot, captured during a trip to Seattle where I lived for several years. The generosity of chef Lisa Nakamura combined with the nostalgia pangs I was feeling for a place I love so much made this a shoot I will never forget.

McCrady's: Charleston, South Carolina

Sean Brock opened his restaurant Husk just four days before this shoot and was running on pure adrenaline as he hadn’t slept since. His giddiness found its way into the staff photo that photographer Peter Frank Edwards had to capture between bouts of unbridled laughter.

Michel et Sebastien Bras: Laguiole, France

I was so nervous to meet the great man himself, chef Michel Bras, whose grandchildren frequently spend the day with him during their summer holidays. The way his eyes lit up whenever they walked into the kitchen instantly tempered my nerves and filled the day with playful energy.

Morimoto: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Photographer Evan Sung gets a lesson in beef curry during our shoot at Morimoto.

Mugaritz: Errenteria, Spain

Chef Andoni Aduriz considers staff meal the most important element in a restaurant day, even creating a separate station for its preparation in his kitchen. His earnest approach to the ritual did not prevent his staff from busting out into laughter when sous chef Rafa Costa E Silva insisted on wearing a paper mache panda bear head during the staff photo. More on that in the book…

Oleana: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Chef Ana Sortun’s beautiful staff meal was made all the better because it included vegetables from her husband’s organic farm.

Piccolo: Minneapolis, Minnesota

As a Minnesota native, the staff meal shoot at Piccolo on a frigid Midwestern day felt especially significant. It felt gratifying to discover such a stellar staff meal back home in the motherland!

The Slanted Door: San Francisco, California

Photographer Jenn Farrington captures The Slanted Door’s prep crew, headed up by chef Charles Phan’s phenomenal aunt, who everyone affectionately refers to as “Mama.”

St. John: London, England

Fergus! Trevor! Enough said.

Ubuntu: Napa, California

Between staff meal prep, chef Aaron London prepared a batch of blackberry leaf ash gnocchi for the evening’s dinner service.

Uchi: Austin, Texas

Chef Kaz Edwards and his team at Uchi take staff meal so seriously that they frequently hold Top Chef inspired contests between employees competing for the award of best staff meal recipe.

Villa9Trois: Montreuil, France

I’m such a fan of chef Stephane Reynaud’s book Pork & Sons that I spent the entire day of this shoot not quite believing I was actually hanging out with him in his kitchen. The experience was made all the better (and more surreal) when Stephane and I joined Paris-based photographer Owen Franken for dinner in the restaurant’s outdoor courtyard and Owen casually mentioned that he was the brother of my home state’s Senator, Al Franken. I still can’t get over it for some reason.

wd-50: New York, New York

The wd-50 shoot was meaningful for many reasons. One was because it included Alex Stupak, who was leaving the restaurant that week to open Empellon. The other was because my friend Ben Freemole (on the far right) was the sous chef there and just like my old comrade in kitchen arms, Joe from The Bristol, Ben and I staged together at The Fat Duck. Hanging out with Ben that day seemed an ideal way to conclude the shoots for a cookbook celebrating the very tradition that inspired our friendship in the first place, staff meal…

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