Feeding the Team

By John Lehndorff

TWO COLORADO RESTAURANTS weigh in on the importance of the “family meal”

Photo courtesy of

You’ve seen the movies glorifying—or horrifying—the heat in a busy restaurant kitchen where temperatures and nerves run on high. But what we don’t think about is the calm before the dinner service storm. When the chef feeds the team, there’s unity and harmony over a shared meal.

“Family meal is very important. You get to make something to feed the staff, and you have to make it great. I tell my cooks: ‘You can’t say: ‘It’s just for the staff.’ It’s your family. You can’t feed them slop,” says chef Charles Klein, of The Periodic Table at Catamount Ranch & Club in Steamboat Springs.

Chef Charles Kelin | Photo courtesy of Charles Kelin

In restaurants across the globe, feeding the help is often called a “family meal,” whether everyone sits together for pre-service chicken pot pie or wolfs down Hot Pockets standing up in the middle of the dinner rush. The “family” part is serious, not sentimental.
“Sometimes we use the same ingredients we serve in the restaurant. I may have some really good pork chops I can’t use on the menu, and I’ll serve them for the family meal,” Klein says. “It turns a solid meal into something extraordinary. I love being able to do that.” He keeps a shelf in the cooler with leftover products meant to be used for the family meal, which sometimes results in exercising some creativity with the ingredients on hand.

Klein says making the family meal can be intimidating for a novice cook. “You’ve got to cook for the chef, too,” he says. “Honestly, all the chef wants is a staff meal made before service starts. He’s happy to eat any meal he doesn’t have to cook himself.”
Chef Klein’s fallback favorite family meal is curry. “When I was younger, I did some traveling and cooking in Australia. We had curry every day there, whether it was Indian curry, Thai curry, or Japanese curry. It’s a comfy, filling family meal everyone can enjoy.”

Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar | Photo courtesy of Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar 

According to Kate Weckerly, restaurant manager at Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar at Redlands Mesa Golf Course in Grand Junction, the restaurant serves upscale comfort classics to members and the public and feeds a large staff.

At Ocotillo, the family meal is available to workers not on the clock for a discount. “We want to cultivate a good culture here and make sure everyone is cared for and can get a break. It’s nice if the staff gets to decompress, eat and make calls. We have a little office, or they can eat outside,” she says.

Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar  | Photo courtesy of Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar 

Because Ocotillo is also a popular venue for golf tournaments and weddings, the staff gets to enjoy some high-end party food. “Itʼs pretty fun after huge events because all of us—kitchen and front of house—eat and talk about the highs and lows of service,” Weckerly says. Despite the fancy food, Weckerly says street tacos are a staff favorite, but what if it came down to just one dish to make everyone on the staff and in the restaurant happy? That would be creamy chicken pot pie in a flaky crust.

John Lehndorff is a former restaurant cook and Dining Critic at the Rocky Mountain News. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Podcasts:

Ocotillo Restaurant and Bar
2325 W Ridges Blvd
Grand Junction

The Periodic Table
33400 Catamount Dr B
Steamboat Springs