Unless you are a particularly empathetic sort, you have probably never thought too hard about what chefs eat for dinner. Who cares as long as the food they serve is delicious?
But you should care. "There is a direct connection between the food a chef eats and food for a customer," says Nathan Outlaw, the chef patron of his eponymous, two-Michelin-star restaurant in Rock, Cornwall. "If the staff food is good, you can see morale improve. It's simple: if you eat well, you cook well."
Here we feature four head chefs who take feeding their staff as seriously as they do feeding their diners.
Chef patron of Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Cornwall
On the menuFish and chips, with mushy peas and tartare sauce
We always have fish for staff tea on a Friday, but we always make an extra effort with it. Fishcakes, for example, are usually potato with a load of wet fish whacked in it – we cook the potatoes in a vac-pack bag, so we don't lose any flavour in the water. Then we will get the fish trimmings and pan-fry them off and then flake them in, so you have that roasted flavour.
Staff tea is 5pm every day and whoever fancies it can make it. I've done it – I'm quite into doing fish pie and curries. I've got the excuse that I can concentrate completely on it – I say, "You can do my work and I'll do this," whereas they have to do their work and do the staff tea as well. But if someone makes a crap staff tea, no one's happy. The troops definitely get a bit upset.
We are like a family in the kitchen. We're here for 16 hours a day sometimes, so it's got to be fun. And I try to make sure my guys have everything they need. If they need to borrow a tenner they can borrow a tenner. If they need time off because they've been pulled over by the Old Bill and have to produce their documents – which happens – that all creates a team that gives a shit about what you're trying to do.
It's pretty simple: if you wouldn't serve it to a customer, don't serve it to your staff. I'm not going to say it – but I'll say it anyway – they are more important than your customers. It's quite a bold statement but it's true, because you can't serve the customers without a good staff. And you can definitely taste happiness and confidence in the food. Someone once told me that they knew I was happy because the food had improved.
Chef patron of Ottolenghi and NOPI, London
On the menuChilli con carne with tacos and a corn and bean salsa
The other day I went into Ottolenghi in Islington and staff were eating hot dogs. Someone walked in the restaurant and I thought, "Oh no!" The last thing I want my customers to see is the chefs eating hot dogs, but the staff like them. The days when they have hot dogs, burgers or pizzas are the happiest. The last thing you want after a long service is the food you've been cooking all day.
The most important thing about staff food is the team spirit it creates. At NOPI we have a big, communal table downstairs where the staff can sit together before service and joke around. It's the one time when the floor staff and the chefs mingle. Good things come out of it: the chefs get feedback and the floor staff understand more about the dynamics of the kitchen.
It would be a lie to say that I thought about staff food when I was setting up Ottolenghi. But when you have people to feed, it focuses your mind. Before we opened NOPI, we had two weeks of staff training before we had a kitchen. The first day we went to Pret A Manger on Piccadilly and bought all the sandwiches they had. It was hundreds and hundreds of pounds, so you start to take it more seriously then.
I worked in kitchens for more than five years. It's only in the last three or four years that I've not worked hands-on. My first experiences of staff food were these really top-end, Michelin-standard restaurants – I found the better the food the customer got the worse the food the staff had. The food in those places is so clinical, you can't just convert it to staff food, it's completely different.
Chef patron of Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
On the menu Roast chicken with an avocado and tomato salad
I was brought up in a Punjabi household, so every night at 6pm we would all sit down to eat. At weekends there was always a house full of people: the family table was the action-packed area where everything happened. Now I've got my own restaurant, I've tried to recreate that feeling of everyone sitting down.
It's not staff food, we call it the family meal – and it's about everyone getting together and not having a hierarchy. Everyone has to sit down at 5pm. If they haven't finished their prep list, tough shit – get in earlier. You make time and you eat. It's the law.
The food for the family meal is wholesome, healthy and nourishing. It's things like lamb curry with brown rice, moussaka with new potatoes and rocket. But whatever it is should be well seasoned and flavoured. We do a menu at the beginning of the week, so everyone can look forward to it. It's psychological: "Oh my god, on Wednesday we've got chilli or fajitas."
I've worked in restaurants – we all have – where the staff food is the dog end of shit. Some places would give you the trimmings from the bones roasted for stock. Some places don't give you anything. Whereas here, we buy in produce and make it with love. It's as important to me that the staff eat as well as any guest we have – it's the same. I don't differentiate between the two.
When it's someone's birthday, they can ask for whatever they want, within reason, mind. We're not doing lobster or foie gras.
Chef patron, the Modern Pantry, Clerkenwell, London
On the menu Poached eggs, bacon, salad,toast and granola
My first job was pot washing at The French House Dining Room, the restaurant that Fergus Henderson and his wife Margot ran before he opened St John. It was the early 1990s and there was a small staff – just two chefs, two waiters and me, the kitchen porter – and every day after lunch we would sit down to eat proper food.
The menu of the restaurant would change every day, sometimes twice a day, so if you ordered 20 chops and didn't sell them all, you'd have those for lunch. It was like a family, very relaxed and social. Because it was my first job, I thought everywhere must be like that. How wrong I was!
Now I have my own restaurant, I've tried to recreate some of that spirit here. It's not always easy. At the French House, the room could fit maybe 26 diners. I remember one service we did 50 covers and everyone was like, "Yeah!"
At the Modern Pantry we had 300 people in for brunch last Sunday. We have 12 or 13 people working each shift, so it's a bit of a change. But the important thing is that there is no us-and-them divide between the front of house and the kitchen. And in the kitchen, there's no shouting, no swearing, no obvious aggression. I'm a sensitive wee flower.
The advantage of a big restaurant that's open all day is that there's always plenty of good food around. The staff have breakfast at 11.15am and dinner at 5.15pm and at weekends breakfast is a bit earlier.
Sunday is always a good day for staff food because we don't open till 10am and everyone sits down to have eggs, toast and salad. In the evenings, it is usually leftovers from what we didn't sell in the shop during the day. Yesterday, it was five-spice pork with shredded cabbage and pasta.
As a chef, you tend to do a lot of eating standing up in the kitchen. Creating new dishes is really important at the Modern Pantry, so those will get passed around for everyone to have a taste.
Last night, I had an idea for mussels and coriander fritters with a seaweed and sea purslane salad, so we will try that out this afternoon and it could go on the menu this evening. Sometimes you have an idea and you're convinced it will be amazing and it doesn't work at all. But that's the fun of it – you just have to do something else.
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