It’s early evening in Lower Parel, and Farzi Café’s lunch service is winding down. Busboys collect cutlery and stack bowls, casting sideway glances at the few remaining customers, satiated, somnolent, reluctant to step back into the heat. Meanwhile, in a semi-secluded corner of the sprawling restaurant, an entirely new, entirely tempting meal appears: rice, dal makhani, muttar paneer, chicken curry and gulab jamuns. Once it’s arranged, busboys and managers move swiftly and in practiced tandem, packing plates with rice, doling out daal, settling into soft grey booths. They’ve been on their feet for hours, and now it’s time for staff meal.
They’re a bit perplexed at my presence, but gamely welcoming. A few bites into our delicious lunch, an air of camaraderie takes hold. A knot forms over a Youtube video (I refrain from looking at which one); my table compares notes on their kids; the whole group bursts into laughter at a colleague’s plate, piled high with too many gulab jamuns. “In the food business, the least we can do is give our staff a good meal,” points out Zorawar Kalra, promoter of Farzi Café as well as range of other restaurants across India.
Restaurants provide their teams with up to four complementary meals a day, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a post-dinner snack (important when the shift ends at 12:30 am). These are held on the main restaurant floor or in back rooms, and while they’re usually not mandatory, nearly everyone participates.
A few bites into our delicious lunch, an air of camaraderie takes hold. A knot forms over a Youtube video, my table compares notes on their kids; the whole group bursts into laughter at a colleague’s plate, piled with too many gulab jamuns.
In the age when everything from dish-plating and recipe-testing to an impromptu pole dance in the restaurant kitchen is documented on social media, it was only a matter of time before staff meals became A Thing. Now they pop up on Instagram and Snapchat, perfectly arranged thalis dripping enough #teamwork and #kindness to warm the cockles of our hipsterized hearts. They make for great PR, and in some cases, bleed into the restaurant’s menu.
At Bombay Canteen for instance, Executive Chef Thomas Zacharias once sampled the soy keema that a staffer made for breakfast. It was so flavorful and similar to mutton keema that it led to a new dish on the menu. Customers lapped it up.
Impresario's Gresham Fernandes went a step further at The Social by putting the entire staff meal on the menu. And at another of his mainstays, Salt Water Café, you'll find a dish inspired by – wait for it – chutney. Now used as marinade for chicken wings, Singh’s Chutney (named for its creator) started out as a five-ingredient condiment that appeared exclusively at staff meals. “A lot of people think [my staff] learns from me,” Fernandes tells us. “Actually, it’s the other way around.”
Not that staff meals are always experimental laboratories. For Mumbai restaurants Bastian and Table, Perch in Delhi, Toit Brewpub in Bangalore and Fatty Bao in all three cities, they’re largely about providing comforting fare reminiscent of home. In Delhi, that means a steady supply of hot rotis; in Bangalore, it means rice and bisibelebath; and for all of them, dal, a vegetable dish and pickle are essential. Meat and eggs are added two-to-three times a week, and other treats, like papadums or chaat, routinely get sprinkled in. Gauri Devidayal, co-founder at The Table, tells us that staff meals are “for enjoying Indian staples, and we make sure they’re healthy and flavorful.” Some restaurants like Olive in Mumbai, cook staff meals in-house; others have designated cooks employed exclusively for these.
Also, since a large percentage of the staff at restaurants is Indian, Western dishes are not always popular. According to one line-cook, some of her coworkers once found burritos to be so off-putting that they ate their tortillas as if they were rotis, dipping them into beans and salsa. But even the most austere kitchens must allow for breaks. Kelvin Cheung at Bastian makes it a point to cook once a week for his entire team, a meal he describes as “cool, quirky, random.”
On a recent Friday, we stop by Bombay Canteen for weekly staff meal. It’s Khow Suey day, and in the kitchen, two young staffers are keeping close watch over boiling noodles, while a cook tosses her coworker an apologetic grin as she steals his cilantro. The team brings our meal together in minutes – something that would have taken this writer hours - and we’re soon passing around fragrant curry, toppings and cake. A nice lady leans over to tell me about how welcome she feels at BC, despite the challenges of breaking into a male-dominated industry. Later, a server with an MBA pedigree explains that he switched careers to more directly help people on a day-to-day basis. I have to laugh, remembering how the last time I was here, he saved my life (or at least my Friday night plans) by recharging my dead iPhone.
A few hours after I leave, the meal shows up on Chef Thomas’Instagram feed; as this story goes to print, the post has earned over 800 likes. #OneBigHappyFamily, the hash-tag reads.
This story was contributed by Namrata Kolachalam, a freelance writer based in Mumbai.
Image Credit: Chef Thomas Zacharias
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