Family Meal Origins | English Version
We’re all pulling from somewhere when we sit down to eat as a group. Here, a restaurant team examines their roots.
October 26, 2016
This story was sponsored by our brand partners at Coca-Cola.
The act of family meal is one that defies most things about how a restaurant runs. Time is a commodity too precious to squander in many pursuits; in a restaurant, the clock never seems to run in your favor. Though the goal at the heart of any meal should never be efficiency or speed, you better believe it played a part in getting those plates on the table. Despite all this, in the direct center of a restaurant’s day there is a ritual so ingrained it seems a little inhuman to head into service without it: family meal — affectionately dubbed “staff” for short.
You stop what you’re doing, you divvy up portions, and you sit down to eat as a group. That’s it. It’s an intimate and crucial move for a team that relies on unspoken communication for the rest of the night, a moment to bond while you house calories.
Because Coca-Cola believes just as much as we do in bringing people together over a meal, we asked the crew providing the food at alaMar Kitchen & Bar in Oakland, California about the moment it clicked for them — presented here in the dominant languages of the kitchen: English and Spanish. —ChefsFeed
I grew up in New York, so obviously pizza is my first memory. I remember going to this neighborhood spot in Washington Heights when I was about four years old and eating this big slice of pizza with gooey cheese and tomato sauce. Man, that memory has never left me.
I grew up with Dominican food. At that point [my mom] was home a lot, and making food fresh every day. There was always something new; everything had so much bold flavor. It’s not like I spent time standing behind her learning her every move, but eating that way made a big difference in my food. It has become a part of my cooking style.
I began experimenting in my teens, but always when nobody was home. In my culture, cooking is considered sort of feminine, so I always did it in secret. Even when I told my parents I wanted to be a chef, they were surprised. They couldn’t understand where that came from — they’re still surprised how far I’ve gone; it’s been sixteen years. I had a group of friends and we all had this pact that we were going to open a nightclub and restaurant. We all split up the jobs, and I decided I would be the cook. So I got serious and went to culinary school. Of course those guys are now doing other stuff and we never opened that bar — apparently I’m the only one that kept the pact!
[AlaMar] was originally to fill a niche, because there aren’t that many seafood restaurants in Oakland. But as we got closer to opening, it became my passion project. It became more about serving food I grew up with, where I could showcase my childhood, as well as dishes I learned during my travels. This restaurant is a road map of my life. I wanted to make this restaurant [a] place where people can come in and make it home.
About [three months into] opening this restaurant, my father passed away. I realized how important it was for me to stay true to my roots, to honor him and I started doing Dominican rice bowls for lunch. Now when people taste this food, they can feel where I’m coming from, they can feel the love.
We’re not just employees and colleagues. We’re a family.
I was working at this place as a waiter, and they needed help in the kitchen. I started working the pantry station, and they [taught] me how to set up a line, how to do mise en place. I’m a real go-getter, I ask questions and work hard, and so I started learning more and they started giving me more responsibility. I always say closed mouths don’t get fed, and the worst question is the one that doesn’t get asked. If you don’t jump in there and try something new, take on more than you think you can handle, you’ll never know what you’re capable of.
Food was sort of a thing for me growing up, but my mom did all the cooking. I never really tried it seriously until I got that pantry job. Now I’ve graduated to doing Christmas and Thanksgiving… I think at first she was suspicious of what I was cooking, like she wasn’t too sure I knew what I was talking about. Now she’s trying new things, because [of what] I’ve shown her. That’s the cool part about food — learning and sharing with family.
I think the fact that this restaurant is so personal for the chef makes a difference in the food. We all have a respect for the recipes knowing they’ve been inspired by family and passed down. You can see it at family meal too. It’s so important to set that tone for service; you can’t be mad at someone when you’re sharing a meal with them. It’s a chance for us to all to take a breath together before we begin the night.
When I was really young, my mom would work long hours and I was left with my grandmother. She’s Chinese and she would make fish and pork belly; pork belly was my favorite. I didn’t realize when I was younger that I would be so passionate about food, so I didn’t pay attention — I wish I had. I think being around that influenced me to appreciate food in a different way.
In high school I was really interested in baking. I would watch Food Network and would make the same stuff at home, pass it out to my family and friends. My uncle Nelson, the chef here, knew I was interested in pastry so when he opened the restaurant he asked if I would be interested in the position. It was a really big step. I really appreciate that he gave me that chance.
Now that I know I want to work with food I am just so excited to learn. That’s a really cool part about working here: these recipes are like family heirlooms. Even family meal, it’s different than what we serve during service, but it’s still an opportunity to bond. This place is more like being at home than at work.
Maybe one day I’ll open up my own bakery. Being here helped me decide on that dream, helped me in thinking about my future. Now when we have family parties they say, ‘Hey Allyssa, will you bring dessert?’ It makes me feel good because my work is recognized, and my family knows how much it means to me.
I’m originally from North Carolina, so we made all that hearty food like red beans and rice, neck bones, chicken, all that food that gets passed down from generation to generation. I remember my grandmother and my mother would be cooking all day while I was playing outside — we would run in, and she would yell at us to get out of the kitchen. Whenever I cook, I want to be replicating that same feeling that they gave me with food: that you are home now. I want to capture that nostalgia. You can make people feel good with your food.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve branched out. I don’t ever want to be someone who doesn’t try new things, either with eating food or cooking it. I never thought I would ever eat Thai food, but it’s really grown on me!
I didn’t graduate from culinary school, but I have that drive and that passion, that curiosity for trying something different from my family. I grew up with folks who gave what they had, and I now have that passion and love for this craft. You can tell when you taste something if someone has put their all in it or not. You can tell when you eat the oxtail stew here that the chef has been making that for years, and someone in his family has been making it for years before him.
My dad owns an Italian restaurant in Taiwan, [but] my mom also owned a Chinese restaurant. When I was young, about five, I would go to the restaurant and run around and the chef would scold me and tell me where I couldn’t run. He would sit me down in the office with a tiramisu to quiet me down. Tiramisu has this special place in my heart.
I never had to cook as a kid because my mother was such a good cook and my dad owned a restaurant, [but] I went to a boarding school in Shanghai and the food was terrible. I [tried] to cook for myself — I was terrible at it! I started learning from my mother and reading cookbooks and trying new things... I’ve cooked every day since then.
When I first moved to the US, I was living in a college dorm with many Taiwanese and Chinese kids. We would all eat together; they all missed food from home and didn’t want to eat burgers. That’s when I really started realizing I loved this. I got a degree in interior design, but I decided to get a culinary degree right after — to complete my childhood dream of being a cook.
Eating is when you have quality time with your family, when you get to know each other. That’s how you connect. It’s beautiful to sit down to eat something you’ve made. It makes it taste better when you’ve worked so hard.