Food = joy…guilt…anger…pain…nurturing… friendship…hatred…the way you look and feel.… Food = everything you can imagine. —Susan Powter
Tim Klepeis, the chef at Adams Avenue Grill, spoke hesitatingly at first. “I think the greatest reward is the food.” Then the tempo picked up. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I think it really is the food. Because you know what, I can make whatever I want, I can eat whatever I want.”
Klepeis, who is also the restaurant’s owner, and I talked one day last February about the work lives of those who prepared and served food in his restaurant. I’d hoped to sit down with the crew at a staff meal, a tradition in which employees gather once or twice a day to eat as a family. But Adams Avenue Grill did not have staff meals. Klepeis said most San Diego restaurants did not. Like other local chefs, Klepeis offered his front-of-the-house staff — the servers, hosts/hostesses — any meal on the menu for half the price. The back-of-the-house staff — cooks, preparation help, dishwashers — were provided a free meal, but they didn’t sit down together to eat.
Some words and phrases might be helpful to introduce. The “line” is where the food is prepared and plated for service. The “pass,” or “window,” is where the dishes ready to be delivered to the dining room are placed. A “sous chef” is second in command in the kitchen. An “expeditor,” or “runner,” coordinates the food orders brought to the kitchen and gets them out to the dining room in a timely manner. A “slam” is when it’s busy.
In between slams, eight San Diego County restaurant staffs allowed a visitor to join them in a meal. Each restaurant also provided a recipe.
910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
When I arrived at Nine-Ten, in the Grande Colonial Hotel in La Jolla, everyone was in a frenzy of preparation for the evening ahead. Michael Stebner, the executive chef, had arranged to meet with me in the kitchen. I don’t know if it was the high gloss of the stainless steel, the array of sharp and long knives, the handsome men in white starched chef’s jackets, or the realization that my elbow was resting on an open crate of expensive porcini mushrooms just flown in from France, but I felt light-headed.
Anyma Kleinsorge, an expeditor and bartender, folded whiter-than-kosher-salt towels into squares. An enormous number of towels are used in kitchens as makeshift pot holders and to clean the rims of plates just before serving. Jack Fisher, the pastry chef, breezed in and out. Fisher oversaw all the baking for the hotel and restaurant, from bread to croissants to desserts. Chris Bellini, a line cook, was chopping ingredients for appetizers and cleaning lobsters.
Travis Murphy, also a cook, planned the staff’s daily dinner. At Nine-Ten, he said, the hardest part of arranging the staff meal, also called the “family meal,” was “to find something to use. The biggest challenge is protein. I have to improvise with what’s extra. Basically, we have to scavenge around. The family meal is…what’s the word I want? Spontaneous.” Traditionally, staff meals are many times improvisational works. “The restaurant doesn’t serve chicken,” he continued, “but we use chicken for making stock, so often I use chicken for the protein. Or extra fish. Sometimes I make a meal that doesn’t have any protein. Occasionally I’ll do a big pasta dish.”
Another consideration was staff members’ food preferences. “I’m a vegetarian,” said Kleinsorge, “and he always remembers to fix something that I can have.”
Murphy was trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. When I quizzed him on his biggest challenge as a chef, he immediately responded, “Patience. My biggest challenge is with myself and with the people around me. I need to be patient.”
Michael Stebner, the executive chef, was immersed in last-minute details before the staff meal, but we talked as he stirred a large bowl of saffron-laced risotto on the stovetop. (Stebner has since left to open Region, in Hillcrest.)
He grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, spending much time in the kitchen helping his mother. He remembered pictures of himself as a little boy sporting a chef’s hat. Although he had an innate love of food preparation, he wasn’t thinking of making food his career. Ironically, his father’s business failed at the time Stebner was beginning to hunt for his first job. “If my dad’s business had not gone under at that time,” he said, “I would have probably followed in his footsteps.” Instead, at 15H years old he got his first restaurant job. All it took was “one step in the kitchen, and I knew this was it.” Stebner went on to train for three years at the Phoenician, a resort in Scottsdale. He’d worked in San Diego for the past nine years and was at Loews Coronado Bay Resort prior to the opening of Nine-Ten.
Stebner removed the risotto from the stove and spooned it into a wide, shallow pan. He said this was a trick of the trade. Chefs cook risotto ahead of time, until it’s halfway done. Then they transfer it to baking pans. They finish cooking it just before the restaurant opens for dinner. He spread the risotto, then ran a crisscross design through the golden pearls. Next, he pulled large pots of braising lamb shanks out of the oven and assessed their progress.
I mentioned to Stebner the difficulty of finding restaurants that offered staff meals and asked why he keeps the staff-meal policy. “It doesn’t make sense not to,” he said. “It’s a soft cost.”
As for problems with personnel, he replied that his key to success was “retaining a staff that’s retention-worthy.” He added that relationships in restaurants can be riddled with friction. “We’re a little bit out of the box.”
It was now time for the staff meal with this out-of-the-box crew. We sat down at tables at the back of the dining room.
I asked what topics they threw around for discussion at their meals. Stebner said, “Well, we have all the political analysts here tonight. Usually we get into really deep conversations about politics and religion, and what’s the other thing? Sports.”