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What is family meal and why is it so important to restaurants?

Staff at Harvest in Cambridge sit down for a family meal before service for patrons begins.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

For most people, a family meal is a dinner shared among relatives at home. For restaurant workers, it’s a meal cooked in an industrial kitchen, served on prep counters, and eaten while sitting on milk crates. It’s not glamorous, but that’s the point.

In Hulu’s hit series “The Bear,” family meal is the only thing that can stop the constant bickering among restaurant staff at The Beef. In a tear-jerking season finale montage, they laugh and share stories together while twirling forkfuls of homemade spaghetti (the recipe for which went viral). It’s a beautiful scene, and apparently, it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of family meal.


“It’s an opportunity for the whole team to come together and become a family before the fast-paced hit of dinner service,” said Daniel Kenney, executive chef at Clink in Boston. “The restaurant industry, the hospitality industry, it’s pretty demanding. Family meal is that give back. It shows the team that you really care.”

Depending on the restaurant, each family meal, also called staff meal, looks different. But usually, it’s served daily around 4 p.m., before the pre-shift meeting. Most often, cooking it is a group effort by kitchen staff who use leftovers, extra produce, or specially ordered non-menu items. The food is served buffet style for waiters, hosts, chefs, washers, and management alike.

“It’s the oldest form of camaraderie, breaking bread together,” Kenney said.

The cuisine served at family meal doesn’t always line up with that of the restaurant. At Bar Enza, an Italian restaurant in Cambridge, “anything goes,” said executive chef Tony Susi. “You don’t wanna keep serving the same stuff over and over again.”

Family meal for the staff at Harvest restaurant in Cambridge.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Susi’s family meal motto is “Keep it fresh. Keep it tasty. Keep it healthy.” He limits pasta to twice a week and pizza to every once in a while.


“I don’t like to put out junk food for staff meal,” Susi said. “I don’t like to cook something heavy or fried because something like that slows you down during service.”

Bar Enza staff usually eat family meal in one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms or at their stations while prepping for service. Conversation can be work-related, about service experiences from the previous night or upcoming events, but more often, the staff talks about “anything that’s going on in the world,” Susi said. “It definitely affects staff morale.”

Harvest, in Cambridge, does family meal a similar way, focusing on variety, nutritional value, and staff preferences.

“It’s a lot of comfort food as opposed to fancy restaurant food,” said executive chef Nick Deutmeyer. “People want something familiar.”

Harvest sous chef Robert Gionta lines up for the staff meal at Harvest.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

At Harvest, family meal is assigned to a different cook every day. Deutmeyer sees it as a teaching opportunity.

“The cook and I will go to the walk-in together and see what’s kicking around,” he said. “It’s kind of like a ‘Chopped’ basket. . . . We gather up those products and look at them like, ‘OK, what can we do to turn this into a really nice family meal?’”

Previous meals have consisted of “gyro casserole” made with leftover roasted leg of lamb; a strata, or savory bread pudding, made with leftover handmade pizza; and mustard-roasted chicken thighs, which the staff has at least once a week. “I don’t think anyone ever gets sick of them,” Deutmeyer said.

Chicken thighs are a go-to for family meal at many restaurants because while chefs purchase whole chickens for their menus, people tend to order breasts more often than thighs. This means there’s always extra in the stock room — and prepping them for family meal is much better than throwing them out.


The cooks at Harvest, most of whom are from South America, also like to “bring flavors from their home countries, like fried plantains,” Deutmeyer said. His staff eats family meal together at a long table in the dining room or on the restaurant’s patio.

David Lisenby prepares a dry rub for a roasted chicken dish for a staff family meal at Harvest.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“The reason why we do it is to bring a little normalcy to everyone’s lives. The staff can rely on it always being there,” Deutmeyer said.

Family meal is a convenient means of eliminating waste, but restaurants purchase food for it as well. At Clink, Kenney has to. The hotel restaurant serves three meals a day, with a family meal before each one. Leftovers alone are not enough to feed everyone. And with the dining room constantly in use, staff eat in a separate cafeteria.

“It’s just as important as serving our guests that pay for their meals,” Kenney said. “It’s a meal that the employees pay for with their effort.”

At Clink, family meal can be prepared by anyone from the head chef to a steward.

“It’s a source of pride and sometimes a great outlet for creativity from potentially somebody who doesn’t always get a chance to be so creative,” Kenney said.


Once a month, Kenney and his staff have a “culture day” where they pick a country and use it as the inspiration for family meal. They decorate the cafeteria with flags and play the nation’s music while eating. If anyone on staff is from that country, they’ll get to help design the menu. The next culture day country will be Colombia at the end of the month. Menus have already been written and posted in the hallways.

David Lisenby checks on the chicken he's prepared for family meal at Harvest.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Clink also does special family meals for the holidays.

“On Thanksgiving, everybody’s getting fresh turkey and all the sides,” Kenney said. “They get the whole nine yards, the full meal, the pies, the ice cream. July 4th, everybody’s getting burgers and barbecue chicken. Those type of days are really great to give back.”

There are other ways of giving back, though. Table restaurant in the North End doesn’t do the traditional family meal. “My staff is just too small,” said chef and owner Jen Royle.

Instead, Royle has a policy: “If you work in my restaurant, you are to never be hungry. There is absolutely no excuse. . . . You can eat whatever you want, whenever you want. That is my family meal.”

However it’s done, family meal brings people together. And in an industry that’s known for its stressful environment, it’s a necessary breather.

“We cook all day,” Deutmeyer said, “but this meal in particular we’re cooking for our own people. We wanna make sure we make it with love.”

Nicole Kagan can be reached at Follow her @nicolekagan_.