The Melbourne Restaurants Upholding the Ritual of Family Mealtime

From one-pot curries to meal swaps with neighbouring venues, writer Paul Chai explores the long held hospitality tradition of family mealtime.

Article by Paul Chai

ELLIE B_HOPE ST RADIO_1Hope St Radio's head chef Ellie Bouhadana whips up 'family meals' inspired by her Moroccan-Jewish heritage.

If you walk past Hope St Radio on any given afternoon, you might glimpse chef Ellie Bouhadana and her team sitting in the venue’s leafy courtyard tucking into homely dishes inspired by Bouhadana’s Moroccan-Jewish heritage.

The team at the Collingwood venue honour the daily restaurant tradition of the ‘family meal’, or staff meal, which sees the staff come together to share food cooked by some of the chefs, front-of-house staff, or Bouhadana herself.

“When I do create a family meal, I like it to reflect food that I eat at home with my family, so I do things that I might do for Jewish Friday night Shabbat dinner,” she says. “I have done Moroccan meatballs before and I recently did a couscous meal, so I spent quite a few hours making cous cous in a Moroccan steaming pot.”

As depicted on the recent Disney+ series The Bear, family meals may take many forms. Chefs might whip something up from each of the kitchen section’s leftovers, or utilise budget for a special family meal, or use the time to test out a new idea on an engaged audience. They are always a time to come together.

Bouhadana says family mealtime allows her team to catch-up, chill out and relax before service.

“We have been prepping all day and they need that time for a breather, a general catch-up but not a run-through of the menu, more like a time to chill and eat together and talk,” Bouhadana says. “Friends might even be around, there are DJs that play at Hope St Radio and we see them sneak up and take a family meal with us as its looks so good and it is so delicious. I know some chefs who come into work just to work on staff meals.”

At Fitzroy’s Cutler & Co, head chef Jordan Clavaron says the family meal was an important way for him “break the ice” and integrate more quickly into the team when he started. Each evening before service started, the combined staff from Cutler & Co and next door’s Marion – totalling about 30 people – share food together.

“We all need to sit down together and chat about the day. For example, I will chat a lot with some of the young chefs or share with the front of house, and it’s great to just have conversation because during service we just don’t have time,” he says.

Rachel and Wei - Cutler and Co. Restaurant
Cutler & Co's head chef Jordan Clavaron says family mealtime is a great way to discover the food of different cultures and cuisines. Image: Rachel and Wei. Photography courtesy Cutler & Co.

Clavaron says this tradition is a great leveller; enabling the whole team to interact. Even Trader House founder Andrew McConnell makes time to sit down for a bite to eat if he is at the restaurant.

Family meal is also a great way to share the different cultures you find in a kitchen. Clavaron has fond memories of a family meal back in France, when he was just 18 years old, and discovered chicken bao for the first time.

“We never have one staff meal the same. It is always different,” he says. “Last week one of the young chefs made a Romanesco sauce and now it is on the bar menu right now with hapuka wing and lemon dressing.”

At Farmer’s Daughters in Melbourne’s CBD, chef and owner Alejandro Saravia has taken the idea a step further by feeding his extended nearby hospitality community.

“We have a lot of restaurants around Farmer’s Daughters and we swap staff meals with each other sometimes. We did a swap with Lee Ho Fook once, so they brought us Chinese-style family meals and we sent them our food with different flavours, and it keeps the team motivated and keeps the industry unified,” he says.

Saravia says the best family meals are stews and curries – substantial single pot dishes that aren’t too heavy – served with rice, salad and pickles. He also takes part in the roster of cooking as a token of appreciation for his staff.

“Like any other job you need a time to wind down, to rest and have a break. And family meals not only give you that chance, but it also gives all the staff the opportunity to sit down around the table and get to know each other,” he says. “So, we have front of house staff sitting with bar staff and kitchen staff, and that is a time of the day where they start talking to each other about things other than work.”