How to Think and Cook Like a Chef at Home, Part One: The Rules of Family Meal

Dry leaves blow across the schoolyard in the waning days of the afternoon parent social season. Soon the cold will sweep down, and parents like me will retire, thin-jacketed, to the warmth of an idling car waiting for the school bell to ring. But until then, we get to talk at pick-up time and vie for the title of most overscheduled parent. For me, these conversations often circle round, eventually arriving at food or restaurant queries, or what to make for dinner. I do my best to answer, but the “what to make for dinner question,” if answered fully, requires more words than the few minutes pick-up time affords.  

Thinking this might be of broader interest, I’ve started a few posts trying to get to a useful answer. Like the restrictions of the brief time in the schoolyard, one post will likely not leave enough space to finish. 

This week’s subject begins with “family meal.” For those not “in the know,” family meal is the food prepared for, and eaten pre-service by, restaurant staff. Restaurant-workers know a secret of the industry: Even at the nicest restaurants in town, family meal, often prepared directly by the chef, is usually the best meal in the house. 

Rules and restrictions apply to family meal. Many of these rules mirror the same rules as a well-run home kitchen. If you want to think and cook like a chef, instead of making dinner, make family meal. Here are the guidelines:

1. First rule of family meal is: Don’t talk about family meal. I will lovingly make your dinner, and will consider you and the fact that we will be eating this together. Your likes and dislikes will be important to me, but I will not accept requests, advice, or discuss my plans for the meal. You, in turn, hopefully will enjoy my efforts, but are in no way required to eat it; however, keep in mind there will be nothing else offered.

2. Family meal must be timely*, made quickly, and not require uninterrupted attention. Restaurants and homes run on complicated and myriad systems and require some certainties, like timeliness, to deal with the many variables strewn into the cogs. Family meal production does not happen in a vacuum. At home and at the restaurant, it often takes place simultaneously with multiple other activities: food deliveries, cooks calling in late, kids needing help with their homework or phones ringing and texts beeping. If family meal prohibits such activities and interruptions and becomes too complex, then it needs simplifying. 

3. Family meal utilizes what might otherwise be waste and should strive not to create waste**. Foods wasted at home and the restaurant reveal a failure in creativity and thoughtfulness. As the equity in our homes withers and frugality gains footing, minding excess waste becomes more important. Chefs always strive to find ways to make “not much” into something great for family meal. Likewise, home chefs must utilize bits of leftovers and the forgotten corners of the fridge, challenging themselves to creatively leave nothing to the trash bin.

4. Family meal should be abundant, but not so abundant as to leave leftovers, thereby breaking rule number three. The food must be sufficient to all those at the table, leaving all well sated, but leaving not too much extra. To this I add a caveat: While it isn’t typically done for a restaurant family meal, at home it makes good sense to make a large batch item at the beginning of the week, to be used to make different meal combinations throughout the week. For instance, the roast that becomes a stew, or the boiled beans that become chili or soup.

5. Family meal must be tasty.

When other parents ask me what to make for dinner, tasty is really what they are after. They want to know how to make food tasty. But, as parenting and working as a chef has painfully taught me, simple questions often aren’t so simple to answer. Unfortunately, as I write this post, I find myself in danger of breaking rule number two; I am running late making my own family’s family meal. The subject of how to make family meal tasty will have to wait.

*I used to have a maitre d’ (let’s call him Pierre Rabbia, just for ease of use), who everyday sent a busser back to the kitchen to inquire what time family meal would be, even though it had been at the same exact time every day. I still don’t know if Pierre was trying to be funny, or he truly hadn’t noticed the clock for nearly six years.

** There should be a “Cheap Bastard” category for the James Beard Awards culinary awards. It would be the most coveted of all the awards. Chefs love to be referred to by their peersat least professionallyas cheap. It implies control, efficiency, creativity, the ability to run a “tight ship,” and a general wisdom about the workings of the world.