Just after 4 p.m. at Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, you'll find some of the kitchen staff in an unlikely setting: sitting in a nondescript parking lot behind the three-Michelin-star restaurant, eating out of ceramic dishes filled with chicken parmesan, pasta, Caesar salad and garlic bread.
Welcome to family meal.
Before the restaurant opens at 5:30 p.m., the 60-plus staff members not only prep for that evening's dinner service, but work together to prepare their own meal. Two days a week, the sous chefs come up with an idea for the dinner and the entire kitchen pitches in to make it. Thursday through Sunday, a staff member is assigned to plan the meal and enlist others to help execute it.
For restaurants like Manresa that place a high value on family meal, it's more than just dinner. It's a collaboration, a chance to learn about other staff members through the food they make (which often reflects their heritage or family recipes) and, above all else, a time to decompress before going into a high-pressure service.
Family meal, chefs say, is central to the culture of their kitchens.
"It's the one meal of the day that everyone can sit together, talk, relax and see someone's different culture of food that they're really good at," said Mitch Lienhard, Manresa's chef de cuisine. "It's a very special time of day for us."
Not all family meals are created equal. Manresa's -- consistently ranked on the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants list -- might be the pinnacle. A pre-planned, monthly calendar posted by the walk-in refrigerators maps out who will be in charge of dinner. Some staff prepare far in advance, like Kristofer Lord, an Icelandic chef de partie, who often makes his own kimchi to use in his family meals. Most recently, he made a duck ramen with kimchi that used duck legs leftover from a duck breast dish on Manresa's $255 tasting menu. Since there isn't much Asian cuisine in Iceland, Lord said he treats staff meal as learning opportunity.
Other recent Manresa staff meals, documented on a dedicated Instagram account (@manresafamilymeal) run by the restaurant's pastry team, range from Moroccan lamb stew or golubzy (Russian stuffed cabbage) to pastrami sandwiches "with all the fixings" made by the renowned chef-owner of Manresa, David Kinch. Other days there's fried chicken, tacos, Chinese chicken salad or sloppy joes. One of the cooks is known for making great salsa. Another staff member would cure and smoke meats and make pickles in advance of his assigned day.
Lienhard said someone made a joke recently: "'Three stars at night, one star during the day.' We have one Michelin-star staff meal."
The best family meals, Leinhard and other chefs said, are the ones created by individual staff members. Staff meal wasn't always that way at Manresa -- the previous structure had the whole kitchen contributing.
"We realized we would lose out on those people who are really good at that specific area. Their staff meal days are the ones we always look forward to," he said.
At most restaurants, kitchen staff rely on leftover ingredients to make their dinner. On the high end, Manresa uses leftover duck legs to make ramen. At the low end is what Robbie Wilson, chef-owner of Bird Dog in Palo Alto, calls "cream of walk-in (refrigerator) soup." Most chefs have a horror story about working in kitchens where staff meal was such an afterthought.
For a recent staff meal at the Village Pub in Woodside, which has one Michelin star, staff repurposed stale garlic-parmesan bread from Mayfield Bakery and tomatoes from an earlier photo shoot into a bright panzanella salad. The bread was tossed with olive oil and garlic, roasted in the oven, and then tossed in a simple balsamic vinaigrette with the tomatoes, micro-greens, burrata and mozzarella di bufala. It was served with roasted chicken (coated in an Asian marinade made by a line cook), vegetables, potato mash and a watermelon salad. For dessert, pastry chef Vivian Hussein made two fruit cobblers, served in cast iron pans with a large bowl of silky, fresh whipped cream on the side.
Village Pub chef de cuisine John Madriaga said they aim for healthy meals, always making a protein and a vegetable dish to keep things light before going into a four-hour dinner service.
"We want to make sure that we nourish the staff," he said. "A lot of us have been here for a few hours now and we're going to work all the way through the night. For most of us, this is our one big meal of the day. The rest of the time we're coming in here with shakes or juices or a light breakfast."
Now that Bird Dog serves lunch as well as dinner, the restaurant has two family meals each day. Everyone's favorite, Wilson said, are traditional Mexican meals prepared for lunch by a new staff member named Maria.
"With Maria, everything is from scratch and there's a lot of love and soul," Wilson said. She indulges his "fetish" for chilaquiles, making the tortillas herself from masa, topped with fresh salsa roja, cotija cheese and eggs.
Wilson, who hails from Texas, said he has made frito pie for staff meal (an uncomplicated mess of chili, cheese, corn chips and other toppings). The kitchen often makes curries, rice and vegetables, he said. The pastry team will sometimes pitch in by making a special drink (recently, boba tea from scratch) or dessert. Dishes tend toward California, Mexican, Spanish and Asian cuisines.
Despite its importance, family meal is a meal to be enjoyed -- not a burden on staff, nor a time to "show off," Wilson said. You won't find staff eating dishes like Manresa's iconic "winter tidal pool," an elegant bowl of ingredients like foie gras, sea urchin and mushroom gel.
"Essentially, they're doing family meals as something they want to eat," Wilson said.
But the purposeful investment in family meal signals to staff that "'this restaurant cares,'" he said.
Lienhard said he believes Manresa's staff meal, famed in kitchens throughout the Peninsula, is one reason that the restaurant has low turnover.
For Wilson, family meal is "a privilege, but at the same time I think, as the owner of the restaurant, I feel like it's a requirement.
"We've been open over a year now," he said. "We've never missed a family meal."