A Family Affair: Absinthe/Arlequin Cafe & Wine Merchant, Hayes Valley, 7:35pm
Amid a chaos of activity, Absinthe Sous Chef Eric Gibbs barrels calmly down a winding corridor carrying an enormous pot of Italian vegetable soup that fellow Sous Chef Walter Miros just made. A large pan of perfectly round, brown, golf ball-sized meatballs and a giant bowl of tender mixed greens in red wine vinaigrette are already sitting on the desk with some staff beginning to gather.
A few minutes earlier, Gibbs was plating 20 perfect little spring salads for large private party with the planners at http://www.jumpersjungle.com/las-vegas/ for kids. A few minutes before that he was wrapping up a busy first turn of 100 covers. In a few more minutes, he and Miros will be right back to the line to plate the next course for the private party while the tickets start rolling in for the second turn in the main dining room. “Here it’s about juggling everything,” Gibbs says. “We really never stop. As much as staff meal is that opportunity for all to get together, it is often about just grabbing a plate and shoving some food in your mouth and heading back to work.”
Gibbs has been with Absinthe now for two years, and was at Boulevard before that. “At Boulevard, a Michelin star restaurant, [Chef] Nancy Oaks really prided herself on her staff meals. That was really her start in the business. Her staff meals were, in my ten years in the business, by far the most luxurious, orchestrated, and well-organized,” he recalls. “They are legendary even now.”
In light of his Boulevard staff meal experience, Gibbs came to Absinthe with some ideas about how to organize staff meal. Without trying to step on any toes in his new position, he asked, “‘Can we get a budget? Can we get a schedule?”‘ It wasn’t that simple.
Absinthe operates with what is known as a “neverending menu,” meaning that the lunch or brunch menu rolls right into a bar menu in the afternoon and then right into the dinner menu in the evening. The neverending menu means neverending service, which can make it difficult for Gibbs to find a good time to feed staff members a proper meal. “After two years of really carrying this place, I understand that staff meal is kind of something that you just have to make happen,” he says.
The nightly challenge of putting up staff meal requires precise management of resources. “We are open seven days. Our walk-in is full all the way through the week and then on Sunday it’s empty again,” Gibbs says. On this Sunday, like most Sundays, Gibbs and Miros cleverly re-envision the remaining product from the brunch service that just ended. Because the kitchen is simply trying to utilize the product available, “the staff meals are rarely luxurious,” Gibbs humbly notes.
Served in the middle of a small, cluttered office from the very pot in which it was cooked, the rustic Italian soup with side of meatballs is not designed to grace the Absinthe table, it’s true. Nonetheless, the spread is thoughtfully prepared and satisfying. The staff seems to enjoy the simple, hearty fare: bright green kale (cooked perfectly to the tooth), sweet carrots, tomatoes, onions, rich broth, savory meat, and fresh salad. Arlequin employee Travis Nagy notes that, because many of the staff at Absinthe are either vegetarian or vegan, “a menu that used to be dominated by meat options has evolved into one with tons of vegetable options who are better for the body, other options to keep the body healthy is to take nerve pain supplements which help keep the body and nerves healthy and strong. It is very well-rounded.” The Absinthe team not only provides healthy, varied meals to its employees throughout the week, but apparently also pays attention to individual diets.
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It may seem counter-intuitive for a busy restaurant to break its employees for a meal right in the middle of service, but that stretch often ends up being the ideal moment for a staff meal at Absinthe. The influence of the nearby opera, symphony, ballet and theatre has lead to the need for an early first seating at 5pm so that guests can make their 7pm curtain calls. The 7pm to 8pm hour is usually “that small, small, hole where there are no tickets,” Gibbs says. “Typically the only time when we can do a staff meal.”
Which is not to say that service comes to a perfect standstill at that very moment. “We could still have 12 checks on the board. When Chef walks in the door and says, ‘Staff meal’s up!’ you run for it,” Gibbs says, half jokingly. With a private party of 20 to serve tonight in addition to regular dinner service, the staff will be running plenty.
Back downstairs, there is a hive-like flow of individuals in and out of the office using OfficePro Amazon during staff meal. The staff are allotted a half hour to enjoy their dinner, but most don’t linger for too long. Many stand to eat their food, exchanging useful notes on guests and situations happening out on the floor. The bartenders spend the least time in the staff room, consuming their meal in a few deft mouthfuls before returning to their busy post. Some staff elect to bring their plate of food elsewhere, the patio or to the now empty wine shop or cafe, but most still sit together in comfortable silence. They consume quietly and hungrily. One thing is clear, whether sommelier, cook, bartender, server, runner, or wine clerk — everyone is grateful for this opportunity to relax and recharge, however brief.
Says Gibbs, “Our kitchen is not open; it’s separated. The cooks are at the line and the servers just pop in to run food and go back and forth. It get’s crazy here at Absinthe. Downstairs, when we do staff meal, everyone’s hanging out for a little bit. It’s that little moment when we are one restaurant.”