50 Best Restaurants: 'Off the Menu' Author Marissa Guggiana Discusses Staff Meal at Toro, O Ya

While we spend most of our time analyzing the best dishes that to eat around town, many don’t realize that the meals that show up in the dining rooms of restaurants aren’t the only ones being churned out of the kitchens. Staff meal, also called “family meal,” is a meal shared by the staff of a restaurant, either before or after service. To look deeper into the age-old tradition, San Francisco-based writer Marissa Guggiana went on a quest to find the 50 best restaurants serving staff meal in the nation, and shared the recipes for these meals in Off the Menu, which was released in mid-October.

In the course of her research, Guggiana visited local favorites Toro and O Ya and sampled their “mise en place” ramen and potato falafel, respectively. We caught up with Guggiana to discuss the importance of staff meal, O Ya’s pre-meal prayer, and why the gang at Toro is so much fun. Guggiana will discuss her book this Saturday, November 12 at 7 p.m. Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street, and Toro chef Jamie Bissonnette will be on hand to do a cooking demo. You can also find copies of the book at O Ya starting next Wednesday. Herewith, the Q&A (find excerpts from the book at the bottom):

So how did you become interested in covering staff meals?
Well, I really liked the idea of teaching people how to cook more than giving them recipes, and staff meal is more about home cooking—cooking off the cuff, and cooking using what’s available. But since they are chefs, they have great technique and amazing ideas. So it was a way of translating the idea that if you learn techniques and basics then you can just cook with whatever is around

Of the 50 you visited, what restaurant stood out to you most?
Boston was a particularly fun city. I had an amazing day at O Y. I was there this past winter, and there was this insane storm outside and it was so freezing, and they took me in all day long and I watched them set the restaurant up. They had staff meal in between doing other things, so I watched them in between making the sushi bar ready—and then they were like, ‘Oh, we are going to make falafel and tzatziki!” At the end of the night, I went to Toro, and they eat their staff meal after their shift, which is out of the ordinary. Also, Toro and Coppa have a sort of competition going about their staff meals and so they both will tweet about what they are having. I just feel like staff meal is a moment when you really get the behind the scenes culture of a restaurant, and people kind of let their hair down.

How important is staff meal to the way that a restaurant functions and the morale of the staff?
People use staff meal for different things. Sometimes it’s a time when farmers come in, if it’s a farm-to-table restaurant, they can talk about what they are doing and what they grow. People get the information that they need to do their job—a restaurant is not an office, and you can’t just pull people aside. Once service starts, they are in motion and they don’t stop all night. So this is the time to connect and have conversations. And some of those conversations are business and there’s also just hanging out, and building a camaraderie and a culture.

Did you expect to find differences between expensive, fine-dining restaurants and more casual restaurants?
I waited tables for a long time so I have had my fair share of staff meals. One thing that isn’t always true but is a trend is that in super casual places, a lot of time they will let you eat off of the menu for staff meal. Urban Belly in Chicago is a noodle restaurant with street food, and they just eat noodles [for staff meal]—it’s very simple. In a really fancy restaurant with really expensive ingredients and food that has 15 elements for each meal, you aren’t going to eat off the menu each night. So in those places, there’s sort of a totally different economy going on for the staff meal. Separate food is often ordered and made specially.

Like O Ya serving falafel.
Yeah, and some of the smaller farm-to-table restaurants buy whole animals and have scraps of meat leftover, and have vegetable ends and things that aren’t going to be on a plate or in the dining room, but they are still food and delicious. And so those little things will get stacked away on a particular shelf on the walk-in until there’s enough there to turn into food.

How did you choose O Ya and Toro as your Boston destinations?
Well, Coppa was in my first book, [Primal Cuts]. I just love them and love what they are doing and I wanted to pick as many farm-to-table restaurants as I could. And O Ya—I wanted to have a Japanese restaurant, and I think they are so nice and when I spoke to the people at both of those restaurants, I could tell that staff meal was important to them. O Ya has a very tight community there—they say a little Japanese prayer before they eat every day. They really sit down and eat together. And I love that Toro was so irreverent about it, and they were really into having staff meal. It was something the whole staff got into, and they would compare staff meals and old favorites, and they name all the dishes that they make.

So you said you spent a lot of time waiting tables, and have had a lot of staff meals. Any horror stories?
We just ate a lot of tater tots and fried chicken. It was just carbs and fat, carbs and fat. And it’s cheap and easy to make. To me, a lot of staff meals are foods that are not cooked. I don’t mean that it’s raw, but it’s thrown in a fryer or reheated in the oven. It’s nothing you would put in a cookbook, there’s no recipe there. There’s no technique, no love in it.

Is that a new thing, then, you think? Putting effort into staff meal?
I think it has always happened in certain places. Certainly, it’s kind of old-school because in Europe people would stay at the same restaurant for a really long time and it would be a family there. So there’s something very old about it. But, I always think that there’s something new about it in the farm-to-table restaurants. It’s sort of like a “woowoo” connection, but I think it’s part of that transparency between the kitchen and the dining room that comes from naming all of your ingredients and where they come from, that creates a sort of respect for the kitchen. And there’s something to that and having staff meal and having the staff feel a sense of pride in the food that naturally creates an environment where people are creating better staff meals.

Get a look at Guggiana’s book above—see pages 19, 218 and 254 for Toro and O Ya

We’re blogging about the 50 Best Restaurants on Chowder all month long at bostonmagazine.com/50best. Join the conversation on Twitter (#50Best) with @ChowderBoston.