Restaurants tend not to be a very democratic place to work in. You cook what the chef tells you to cook, how he tells you to cook it and when the customer orders it. For the average line cook, there ain't a whole lot of creative liberty or places to inject their own personal style or preferences. At Uchi, a restaurant where Top Chef champ Paul Qui heads up the kitchen, that policy is different when it comes to "family meal" -- the communal buffet-style feeding frenzy the restaurant staff eats to fuel the frantic night ahead, and in honor of tonight's premiere of Top Chef Masters, we've got an exclusive look inside the daily ritual.
At Uchi, Paul urges his staff to take pride and put in some serious thought when it's their turn to cook staff meal on a rotating basis. Not only are they trying to feed a whole mess of people, Qui wants to see what culinary impulses they'll tap when allowed to cook beyond the restaurant's menu. Whether it's as basic as tacos or as complex as a long-simmering stew, Paul wants it to be a competition of sorts: How am I going to prove to the boss and everyone else here that I'm a damn good cook?
"There's always a pride issue," Paul says in the video shot by filmmaker Christian Remde. "I remember when I used to cook family meal, I had to make sure my s--- was the best. Everyone gets excited like 'Paul is cooking family meal today!' because he's going to make it good. It's a pride issue we try to pass onto our staff. It's a big deal -- staff meal is the opportunity for you to cook for your chef and your peers."
Most restaurants let cooks make staff meal out of cheaper ingredients, or ones that might be leftover or overstocked, but Paul essentially gives his cooks carte blanche when it comes to their ingredient list. "The way we do staff meal, basically if a cook is interested in a different type of cuisine -- say a sushi chef wants to make chicken pot pie -- we're like 'Alright, let's order the ingredients for chicken pot pie.'"
Is it just a meal, in the long-run? Yes, but as Qui puts it, "I think it's a lot more than that. It's a time of the day where everybody from the front to the back of the house gets together, enjoys a meal together and allows them to get closer."
And much like the pride issue Paul mentioned earlier, should a staff meal go wrong, you're going to be the one getting dirty looks all night.
"The biggest challenge in creating a good staff meal is how organized you are in prepping your station. If your station is tight ... family meal comes easy. If you come in and you're in the weeds, family meal is going to be horrible and all the chefs are going to be mad at you," Paul says with a smile.
Hungry for more? Tune into Top Chef Masters tonight at 10/9c and check out Paul's guide to Austin at Food & Wine