Family Affair: Staff Meal at Hillside Supper Club

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Hillside Supper Club, Bernal Heights, 9:30pm 

The last guests are still hovering over dessert when Hillside Supper Club chef and co-owner Tony Ferrari returns to the kitchen to prepare one final meal for the evening. At approximately 9:35pm, the music switches not-so-subtly from dinner jazz to Wu Tang Clan. Ferrari lays several Rock Cod filets across the grill. The fish will accompany a Parisian gnocchi (made with flour in place of potato) and a salad of arugula and salt-roasted beets tossed in a thyme-shallot Champagne vinaigrette. Dinner guests might pay good money for this kind of thoughtful dish, but right now it will go to a handful of hungry Hillside employees with no check attached.

“It’s the only meal I eat all day,” says Zach Cowee, who is learning about dessert and garde manger as part of an apprenticeship in Hillside’s kitchen. He always looks forward to chowing down at the end of the night with his co-workers.

“I think it’s really important that people get together and have a family meal. Since I’ve been in California, every place [I’ve worked] has had a solid family meal. At Chez Panisse and Commis, they threw stuff down on the table and told people to dig in,” notes Austin Ferrari, Tony’s fresh-faced younger brother. Austin manages front of house operations at Hillside Supper Club, including an increasingly interesting wine list. “We plate everything here rather than doing it on platters because we don’t want to waste food. Our host can’t eat dairy, so we are able to give him a plate that is dairy free,” he says.

Paige Espicha worked previously at Local’s Corner. She has now been a server at Hillside for a couple of months. She says she sometimes feels guilty at how much “these guys go out of their way,” noting that they always make her something pescatarian to suit her diet. This kind of tailored staff meal experience is certainly one of the benefits to operating a smaller restaurant.

With extensive culinary experience between the two of them —despite both being so relatively young— Tony and his culinary school friend Jonathan Sutton went brick-and-mortar with Hillside Supper Club about three years ago. The restaurant had evolved from a series of neighborhood dinner parties among friends to a charming Monday pop-up before occupying the small corner space in the tucked away Precita Park neighborhood at the base of Bernal Heights. Small, thoughtful, comfortable  (“and unpretentious,” Tony emphasizes) remain the prevailing themes at the restaurant, notions which carry through to the staff experience, even after the guests go home.

On a Sunday night, the restaurant has eight or nine people working, and maybe five people might stick around for family meal (the restaurant employs 18 people in total throughout the week). As employees hang up their aprons for the night, they huddle next to the kitchen and Tony puts individual plated dishes out on the pass, noting which ones were prepared with special diets in mind. Tonight it’s fish, but it could be lamb or burritos on another night. “We get real creative with it, depending on what we need to use up” says Austin. Some employees treat themselves to a glass of wine with their dinner, others catch up on the water they forgot to drink during the shift. One employee who must get up early, takes his meal to-go. Lined up in a row along the bar, the handful of staff members who remain share an unprompted moment of silence, worshipping the honest food in front of them and the opportunity to cool their heels. After a few bites, the staff is chatting again: about service points, new wines, unusual guests, the week ahead. The vibe is so relaxed and intimate that even the Wu Tang Clan are momentarily charmed by the situation.

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Sometimes the whole staff will go to a bar after service together to continue the staff meal conversation. “We are family here so we try to keep that even when we are off service,” Austin says.

After three years, Sutton and the Ferrari brothers are still experimenting with how to offer staff meal to accommodate both their employees and their budget. They have “yet to figure out how to incorporate the staff meal into the work shift” and have toyed around with the idea of offering the family meal before dinner service. Offering staff meal at the end of service allows the chefs to play with ingredients left over from that evening’s dinner service. Ferrari and Sutton want to make sure that everyone gets a meal who wants one, meanwhile they are determined to avoid putting up food that will go untouched.

In June, Tony and Austin are planning to open the doors to Provender, a tiny coffee shop. The 400-square-foot Potrero Hill stop-over will offer local beverage and to-go options—and standing room only, save a bench out front. With only a handful of employees to feed this time around, it should be even easier for the brothers to maintain the simple, nuanced staff meals they have come to prefer.

Hillside Supper Club
300 Precita Ave
(415)-205-6005