Rich Vana
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Family Meal: The Grape

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Put leftovers in the hands of professionals, and they suddenly don't seem like leftovers at all ... (Photo by Rich Vana)

Put leftovers in the hands of professionals, and they suddenly don’t seem like leftovers at all … (Photo by Rich Vana)

They’re the ones that buy the food, prepare it, cook it, plate it and serve it – but what exactly do those chefs and cooks behind the kitchen walls and the servers and bartenders taking your orders eat for dinner before they bring you yours?

Well, it depends on the day. And the leftovers.

But what it’s universally called is Family Meal; that time before service when the entire restaurant staff gets a brief respite to eat whatever it is that’s been cooked in the kitchen for that specific purpose. It can happen once a week or every night from restaurant to restaurant, and it almost always involves a bit of creativity from the entire kitchen staff. Typically restricted to leftovers and surplus ingredients – or those no longer designated for restaurant service – family meal can be experimental or old-fashioned and comforting. And at The Grape Restaurant on Greenville, it can vary wildly depending on what Chef de Cuisine Danyele McPherson has up her sleeve. We chatted with Danyele about Family Meal at the Grape, why it can be the most inspirational meal of the week, and how different the food can be behind those kitchen walls.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Danyele. To start, can you maybe give us an overview of what Family Meal means? 

Family Meal in restaurants is, for us, when you get one meal out of the week for us – some places will do a little one every day. It’s a time before service for everyone to sit and eat something we’ll put together – front of the house and back of the house; dishwashers, prep cooks, whatever. Whoever’s in the building. We cook for everybody. It’s usually made with leftovers, scraps, whatever happens to be around. And then sometimes it’s more planned than that – for me, sometimes it’s doing things that I’m thinking about putting on the menu. It’s like a test run. Let me test this out on the employees and see how they like it.

It’s just a time for everyone who works together to sit down and actually eat together – break bread and have a communal sigh of relief before getting your ass kicked at service.

So is there always someone who does the meal every week? It it an assignment?

Danyele McPherson and Arturo Cob prepare the day's Family Meal. (Photo by Rich Vana)

Danyele McPherson and Arturo Cob prepare the day’s Family Meal. (Photo by Rich Vana)

Everyone in the back of the house comes together to do little parts to finish off the meal. Here we always follow a little bit of a formula – there’s always a salad, because we’ve got some vegetarians here, and also, everybody’s sort of going into their 30’s now and is like ‘Man, I can’t just drink beer every single night and eat tacos.’ But we’ll always have something a little heavier, too.

So you’re not just putting together a bunch of things that are already on the menu?

No. Sometimes there are things that are components of menu items, but not the same version of it. For instance, we have a chef’s choice steak that we do for the menu every day. So if we get strip steaks in, we’ll do center cut New York strips because we always get the entire piece. So what we’re left with is the end of the steak, which we call the nerve end. It’s basically where the nerve just kind of runs through, and it’s still a New York strip, but it’s not this amazing center-cut piece of meat. So we cut all those off, and we’ll usually just end up making tacos out of it – something like a fajita-style taco out of it, or sometimes we’ll cut it up and braise it and do a very bastardized version of beef bourguignon.

And any time we’re thinking of doing tacos or anything that might have a Mexican influence, we’ll get the meat going or whatever, and then Arturo Cob, my grill cook, will come in at 3:30, get his station set up, and then make the salsas or guacamoles or whatever. We’ll get everything Arturo needs and then bring in some extra tomatillos if he wants to make salsa verde or something like that; he’s in control of making sure all the salsas are great.

Salsas and tacos at The Grape. Does that feel a little out of place?

It definitely would seem weird to the people that eat here, but for anyone who’s worked in kitchens – especially in Texas – tacos are what you eat in the kitchen. You use what’s around you.

But it sounds like the quality of the food is still pretty good …

Oh yeah. Our cooks – it’s not just the food on the menu that they can cook well. They are seasoned, professional cooks who know how to make all kinds of stuff, even if it’s not something that’s on the menu here. For example, right now we have this perlou dish with basmati rice with purple hull peas. Arturo will always take that, take one of the chickens and shred it, saute it, add whatever vegetables we have around and just be like ‘It’s comida China,” because they don’t just want to have another burger or whatever.

Or take Restaurant Week – we were doing a roast pork loin for it, and so every day we’d roast three or four pork racks. We’d let them rest, and then we’d cut the ribs off. So every day we’d save those pork racks for Arturo, and then at the end of the shift he’d take them all, cut them up, throw them in the fryer and then make some stupid good glaze with honey, chili powder and garlic and toss them all together. So the official family meal happens on Saturday, but if there are bits of stuff around that we’re not using for the menu, then we’ll certainly do something with it rather than throw it in the trash.

Have you learned anything from the cooks during the Family Meals?

I learned how to make refried beans from one of my prep cooks. And I asked her to tell me how she makes them at her house – she told me about the pork fat and the onions and was like, “That’s pretty much it. You don’t need to add too much to it.” So I asked how she mashed them, and she told me to use a glass. So I was literally standing at this pot in our kitchen mashing these beans with a glass and was like, “Wait, why the hell am I doing it like this? I have an immersion blender three feet away from me!” It came out great, and now we always make refried beans with the immersion blender.

What’s one of the favorite Family Meals you’ve made?

I had some braised pork – I cant remember why I had it, it was just around – and Brian makes this really great barbecue sauce that he calls Sweet Pants barbecue sauce. It’s a spicy-sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce. So we took all the pork and mixed it with the barbecue sauce and made johnnycakes and some collared greens. So we had all that with this barbecue-glazed pork on the top of it. That was really good.

And anytime we do tacos, it’s awesome. We do half chickens on our menu, and so sometimes we have a few extra, so we’ll have the prep cooks take that, take the meat off the bones, saute that with some poblanos and onion, add diced tomatoes and chili powder and then stew the chicken with that all day, have Arturo make the salsa and the guacamole, and that’s just awesome.

It sounds like Arturo knows what he’s doing.

He does. It’s inspiring  to know that I can throw anything at him and say, ‘Can you make something out of this?’ And every time it’s awesome – not just like, “Oh, it’s okay,” but awesome.

So what will you be serving for the staff today?

A sandwich made with leftover whole roasted pork loin glazed with molasses and ancho chile that we used for a beer dinner last week with Peticolas. We chilled it, took the bones off, shaved it on a slicer, and then we toasted some buns – we have some pumpernickel and some French bread buns around. Then we’re adding tomato-bacon marmalade, which is left over from multiple menus ago and has been in the freezer, and some avocado spread with avocado, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. And then we did cucumbers thinly shaved with pickled red onion – we marinated the cucumbers with them for almost a pickle relish-y thing.

And do you get to eat first?

No, the front always gets to eat first. Typical; we do all the work and then they get to go first (grins).

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