When the people who make the world's most acclaimed meals sit down to eat before or after service, what's on the table? The sometimes-surprising, always drool-inducing answer is showcased in a new book from Per-Anders Jorgensen, Eating With the Chefs: Family Meals from the World's Most Creative Restaurants.
Jorgensen, a food photographer and Swede, traveled to 18 of the world's premier culinary destinations—including Denmark's Noma, Spain's Mugaritz and Asador Etxebarri, France's Le Chateaubriand, Italy's Il Canto and America's own French Laundry, Chez Panisse, wd-50, and Roberta's—and got an intimate look at the meals shared by chefs and restaurant staffs.
The book features plenty of gorgeous still lifes of the dishes themselves, shot in a warm, natural style that reflects the food—more homey dishes than diners get, but no less lovingly prepared. And it's the simplest meals and shots—the beat-up cast iron pan holding a house-made chorizo and fried egg, accessorized with a hunk of crusty bread at Asador Etxebarri—that are the most knee-bucklingly delicious looking. But the book also features a look at the people behind the scenes of these storied restaurants, with shots of staff at work and at rest, and sitting down and sharing their meal—the book's candid glimpses of the creative camaraderie happening around gorgeous tables groaning with hearty food will make your sad desk lunch seem that much sadder.
Indeed, as the book title indicates, these staff sit-downs are a kind of family meal. And that's what drew Jorgensen to the project. In the book's intro, he tells the story of eating alone at restaurants as a kid. "My fellow diners probably found the sight of this young boy eating alone a bit awkward, but for me it was heaven, because my family meal was right there, among the staff and chefs that work there."
He would go on to a career photographing food—he started 20 years ago when his now-wife Lotte hired him to shoot for a Swedish gourmet magazine and the two went on to launch Sweden-based food magazine, Fool. The idea for the book crystallized ten years ago when Jorgensen was shooting at Mugaritz and became fascinated with the contrast between the staff's meal—Basque peasant food—and the what the restaurant served patrons. "I was struck by the notion that so many restaurants must be mirroring family life like this backstage in their kitchens, and cooking the kind of honest, simple food that if you're lucky you had at home. That's something there is far too little of in the world today."
While the staff meal hasn't always been something that would be suitable for photography, many restaurants now make it a priority. But why has the staff meal become more important when in other industries and companies, the trend is always toward cutting corners and costs? Jorgensen tells us, "because the deal with food and the end result depends largely on having staff that is happy and can perform at a high level."
He says that he spent two to three days photographing each restaurant in the book. "After the first two in Paris we had established a working method that served us well," he says. The photos are accompanied by stories of each restaurant and its philosophy of the staff meal. Chef Paulo Lopriore cooks the Il Canto staff meal himself, based on the most recent offerings of local farmers; at Asador Etxebarri, the emphasis is on "grandma's cooking;" Mugaritz has an in-house recipe book that begins, "Family meal is the most important station" at the restaurant.
See photos from the book in the gallery above and if you're feeling ambitious, try the recipe below from Chez Panisse for your own staff meal.
Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California
- Shelled fresh cranberry (borlotti) beans 2½ cups /450 g
- Yellow onion, quartered 1 small
- Bouquet Garni 1
- Green beans (French beans) 4 cups /450 g
- Zucchini (courgettes) 2 medium /450 g
- Yellow squash 2 medium / 450 g
- Tomatoes 2
- Orzo, conchiglie, or orrechiette pasta 4 oz. /120 g
- Salt and black pepper To taste
- Garlic cloves 6 heads
- Basel leaves 2 bunches
- Grated Parmesan cheese 4 tbsp. / 25 g
- Extra virgin olive oil ½ cup / 120 ml
1. Bring a large saucepan or pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shelled beans, onions, and bouquet garni. Simmer for 30 minutes, until tender.
2. Meanwhile, cut the green beans, zucchini (courgettes), and yellow squash into small pieces, roughly the size of the top of your little finger.
3. Peel and seed the tomatoes. Place the seeds in a strainer (sieve) and strain the juice into the bean broth. Chop the tomatoes.
4. When the beans are tender, drain them, reserving the cooking liquid. Discard the bouquet garni and the onion. Season the liquid to taste with salt. Add the green beans.
5. Bring the liquid back to a simmer, then add zucchini and squash. When the broth comes to a simmer again, add the beans and the tomato. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the pasta. Simmer for another 10 minutes. If the broth is too dense with vegetables, add a little more water.
6. Meanwhile, make the pesto. Pound the garlic cloves to a paste with a mortar and pestle or puree in a food processor. Add the basil leaves and process to a paste. Add the Parmesan cheese, then drizzle in the olive oil to thin. Let stand in the mortar to serve or turn into a serving bowl.
7. When the pasta s cooked, taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. Let the soup sit for one hour, then reheat to serve.
8. Serve in warmed bowls with a generous spoonful of the pesto, accompanied with additional grated Parmesan cheese.