Right Chef Josh Lear gets behind the stove to prepare dinner for the staff. Line Cook Myles Smith carries the salad to the kitchen serving window. Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau
It’s 4 p.m., and the show is set to start in one hour. The doors will open with guests greeted warmly and ushered to their seats. The curtain will rise with enticing descriptions of specials and wine pairing recommendations. Out come deviled eggs with bacon and roe or pepper jelly with blue-cheese mousse. After an intermission, the actors will dazzle guests with redfish with cream kale and fall squash or, perhaps, Wagyu brisket. And for the encore, pecan tarts with chocolate ganache are whisked from the kitchen. The actors make it all seem effortless. Each evening, the staff of The Noble South puts on a show, serving food to eager patrons — locals and visitors alike.
But before that curtain goes up, before the doors open to welcome hungry guests for a dining experience, The Noble South staff gathers for a family meal. The kitchen staff whips up an early dinner — or, for those who worked the early shift, a late lunch — for all the restaurant’s employees. Line cooks, servers, bartenders, chefs and managers gather to share a hot meal together before the restaurant opens. “It usually starts with catching up on our personal lives, and then segues into menu talk,” says Josh Lear, the chef de cuisine and seven-year veteran with The Noble South. “We use that pre-shift lull to talk about small changes to the menu, the wine list and what dishes we are trying to showcase that night.”
Family meals are a chance for the kitchen staff to prepare a dish “when inspiration strikes,” says Lear. “We get to play with it and try things out.” Other times, a family meal is a chance to enjoy an entree one last time before it is transitioned off the menu or to taste new menu options.
Left Owner Chris Rainosek, Chef de Cuisine Josh Lear and Sous Chef Cody Machado enjoy the brief downtime before the doors open.
Historically, high-end restaurants have offered a staff meal, also known as a family meal, for employees. A more cynical view would be that the meals are a way for restaurateurs to feed staff in a more cost-effective manner than offering a free shift meal from the pricey menu. However, most chefs pride themselves on providing the staff with a nutritious dining experience that fuels everyone for the long night ahead, and one that showcases their culinary skills. In many fine dining establishments, the back of the house is made up of immigrants and the food they serve for family meal reflects their culture. It is not unusual, for example, to find authentic Mexican dishes served at family meals in high end steak houses or arroz aguado (Nicaraguan chicken stew) at a fancy Italian spot. Restaurants can be hierarchal in nature and, on top of that, divisions can naturally evolve between the front of the house and back of the house. With family meals everyone comes together as one team, to get to know each other, to talk shop and to blow off steam.
At The Noble South, family meals are served whenever possible, and the goal is to continue to offer it more frequently in the coming year.
Emi Bencsáth, the general manager who has been with The Noble South since 2014, recalls past meals such as “beef stroganoff, fish sandwiches, frittatas with salad and shrimp creole.” Anything that can feed a crowd.
“We’ve made things like Thai shredded pork rice, but we also don’t shy away from vegan and vegetarian meals. We have people who follow those diets on staff and it’s nice to do something for them as well,” says Lear.
When many people are heading home to eat dinner with their families, the restaurant staff at The Noble South, and dining establishments around the Bay area and beyond, are working to provide dining experiences for others. Many of them have been with the restaurant for many years, and they often work long hours together. “I get here at 5:30 a.m. to set up the kitchen. I’m here through the lunch service, and then stay to help set up for dinner,” says sous chef and nine-year veteran of The Noble South Cody Machado. Lear also discusses the long hours associated with restaurant life. “Lots of times, I’m here from 10 in the morning until 11 at night. That’s the life of a chef. But I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. Having the opportunity to sit, to catch up on each other’s lives and, as is the nature of the restaurant industry, to tease each other a bit, is a welcome respite.
“It’s important to have some time to connect and to build camaraderie,” says Lear, “Because once that door opens, it’s time for the show.”
Left to Right Plating catfish with white wine and tomato sauce alongside herb rice. Baby mustard green and arugula salad is a nutritious dish to fuel a long night at The Noble South.
Catfish with White Wine Tomato Sauce
4 catfish filets
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 rib celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add oil to a large frying pan and heat over medium for 2 minutes. Carefully add your filets flesh side down and cook for 3 minutes on each side. Remove from pan and let rest on a plate while you prepare the
2. Add onion, celery and garlic to the catfish pan and sweat for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes.
Add white wine to deglaze the pan, then simmer for 8 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat, then add butter
and parsley. Stir until
3. Plate fish individually or on a serving platter and spoon sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
1 1/2 cups uncooked white rice
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 bay leaf
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1. Cook rice according to package instruction. Transfer to a large serving bowl and add butter and herbs. Fluff until fully combined and serve warm.
Baby Mustard Green and Arugula Salad
16 ounces mixed greens*
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 small, sweet peppers, thinly sliced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1/2 cup of feta cheese
1. In a large salad bowl, gently toss greens with lemon juice and olive oil. Add salt and pepper
2. Arrange the peppers, shallots and feta on the top in an even layer.
* You can use any mix of baby greens you like. Baby kale works well, too.