THE EVENING MEAL

Pho­tog­ra­pher and for­mer chef Claire Gunn took a sneak peek into what the staff at three Jozi restau­rants eat be­fore doors open for ser­vice. It turns out that burger night is big for the crew at Mar­ble…

Woolworths TASTE - - Contents - TEXT AND PHO­TO­GRAPHS CLAIRE GUNN

Be­fore the guests ar­rive, a mo­ment of calm de­scends at these Jozi restau­rants as the staff en­joy a meal as a fam­ily.

“SOME PEO­PLE CATCH UP WITH THEIR BUDDIES ABOUT WHAT’S HAP­PEN­ING IN THEIR LIVES. OTH­ERS ES­CAPE INTO THEIR HEAD­PHONES FOR A WHILE”

I be­lieve these are three non-ne­go­tiables upon which the flow of a good restau­rant team in ser­vice de­pends.

This con­nec­tion is re­in­forced in the down­time of the staff meal when the team mem­bers serve each other, sit down to eat to­gether if pos­si­ble, and con­sider the com­fort and nour­ish­ment of their col­leagues. In a world where they are ded­i­cated to the ser­vice of oth­ers, this is a nat­u­ral way of be­ing. The re­al­ity, though, is that it’s not al­ways easy for ev­ery­one to eat to­gether like clock­work: some will have to keep things mov­ing in the kitchen and at the bar, some will eat in the serv­ing area or at the de­liv­ery door, and oth­ers will stash their din­ner at the wait­ers’ sta­tion to be eaten much later af­ter ser­vice.

For many, it’s a quick 10-minute re­fuel be­fore they head straight back to their sec­tions. And it’s dif­fer­ent at ev­ery restau­rant… to Brian Mpala up­stairs – he gets to flip those burgers on the sex­i­est grill in Jozi. (It’s def­i­nitely all about “din­ner and a show” here – the raised din­ing room of­fers guests a view of the drama of the open kitchen lit by flames roar­ing be­hind the grates.)

Mar­ble prides it­self on the qual­ity of its meat, so it’s no sur­prise that the staff get their fair share: meals are usu­ally hearty stews and cur­ries made with of­f­cuts, and it’s usu­ally Brian who pre­pares them sin­gle-hand­edly – apart from on burger night, when

he is only re­spon­si­ble for the cooking. When I chat to the team, they share how grate­ful they are to Brian and rate burger night as one of their favourites. I’m told that the se­cret to their pat­ties lies in the ra­tio of meat to fat, the ex­tra sea­son­ing, and, of course, the un­mis­tak­able smoky char­grilled flavour.

Ev­ery­one – stu­dent, som­me­lier, host­ess, sculler, sous chef – eats to­gether in the din­ing room. Con­ver­sa­tion is muted. Some peo­ple catch up with their buddies about what’s hap­pen­ing in their lives. Oth­ers es­cape into their head­phones for a while. David tells me how im­por­tant it is to him that ev­ery mem­ber of the team is well fed and ready for a busy, suc­cess­ful night. “Just eat prop­erly. That’s how you stay healthy,” he says.

It’s a long, dig­ni­fied break for his staff, some­thing that’s rarely seen in restau­rants. The long in­hala­tion be­fore the night of food theatre be­gins.

adds the quin­tes­sen­tial Ital­ian top­ping, Parmi­giano, be­fore the bowls are whipped off the pass and taken to the din­ing room.

At the head of one of the ta­bles is a freshly pressed white jacket draped over James’s chair, ready for the evening ser­vice. The din­ing area is swiftly con­verted into a staff can­teen and with a brief word from chef, the meal be­gins. Ev­ery­one sups in si­lence at first, dart­ing a glance here or there to their com­rades, un­til I pipe up to as­sure them they are free to re­lax: “I know it’s weird hav­ing some­one tak­ing pic­tures, but I’m just in­ter­ested in see­ing you all be­ing your nor­mal selves.” In no time the level of noise has risen to the hum of a large fam­ily gath­er­ing, laugh­ing, teas­ing and shar­ing life.

To­wards the end of the meal a few ex­tra meat­balls are bar­gained over and James starts to chirp across the din­ing room. He owns the space, eas­ily con­vers­ing across it as his staff chow down, laugh and chat in sev­eral lan­guages. It’s clear to me from the con­ver­sa­tions I over­hear that, like friends and fam­ily, they help one an­other; they lis­ten and they care.

At all three restau­rants, the protest was the same when I ap­proached them to al­low me to pho­to­graph their meal: “But our staff meals are very sim­ple …”

And isn’t that an in­ter­est­ing point? Why are the staff served such sim­ple meals at restau­rants that spe­cialise in pro­duc­ing con­sis­tently daz­zling food?

I think the an­swer is this: dishes like spaghetti and meat­balls take us back to mom’s ta­ble. An emo­tive serv­ing of com­fort and love. These meals are meant to nour­ish first and en­ter­tain sec­ond. They are an en­er­gis­ing hug be­fore an­other seem­ingly end­less night of speed, sharp fo­cus and pay­ing at­ten­tion to the de­tails.

“IN NO TIME THE LEVEL OF NOISE HAS RISEN TO THE HUM OF A LARGE FAM­ILY GATH­ER­ING, LAUGH­ING, TEAS­ING AND SHAR­ING LIFE”

This spread, clock­wise from above: Brian Mpala, staff chef at Mar­ble, keeps a watch­ful eye on the grill; when the meat is good, the burger is good; the roar­ing, open fire gives that smoky, flame-grilled burger taste they all love; all hands on deck for last-minute prepa­ra­tions for ser­vice be­fore tak­ing a break to eat to­gether; burger pat­ties are handpressed daily in the butch­ery sec­tion down­stairs at Mar­ble.

Clock­wise from above: A sim­ple clas­sic: spaghetti and meat­balls; pasta is made daily at Coobs; an ex­tra serv­ing is bar­gained over at the end of the meal. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top: Freshly made pasta is tossed in rich tomato sauce; pasta sheets be­come spaghetti; chef James Di­ack’s ex­u­ber­ance is con­ta­gious.

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