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…
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.