SCOOP DU JOUR is a weekly column by food enthusiast Hannah Howard about eating, cooking, and exploring her way through New York. From a visit with the City’s greatest grocer to discovering the “umami” of love, Fridays are packed with the unique flavor only Hannah can coax out of a culinary experience.
At Aburika Kinnosuke in Midtown East, I spoon homemade custardy tofu into my mouth, sip sake, and feel ebullient. I’m chatting up the manager, who comes from “the New Jersey of Tokyo,” and works another job staring into a microscope all day, making intricate jewelry.
Two jobs, two young kids…“How are you still awake?” I ask.
“I love it here. Making people happy. They eat happy, they drink happy. And we’re like family. At the beginning of the night, we eat together. At the end of the night, we eat together again.”
Of course. Family meal. How many families gather around the dinner table each night, these days? Some, of course. Others are pulled apart by work and a million other things to do; places to be. The family dinner is a bit of a relic.
But every afternoon, before restaurants open their doors to the ravenous public, their cooks and servers and busboys and hosts are gathered around a table or lined up at the bar, sharing a meal together. It’s old school, and it’s wonderful.
At the restaurants where I’ve worked, family meal was kind of a big deal. As a cook, family meal meant a chance to take a break from feeding faceless strangers and cook for friends and coworkers. They are a hungry, appreciative, and honest cohort. (“The pasta tastes like a carburetor.”)
The first staff meal I concocted as a cook: tuna burgers, wasabi mayo, leftover buttery buns, and a salad with every veggie I could get my hands on. The waiters and my fellow cooks loved it, and I felt the glow of validation; they were not easy to please. I had arrived in the world.
The cooks spend all day and night executing the vision of their chef. Staff meal lets them flex their creative muscles a bit, wow everyone with a fiery curry, a satisfying stew, a crackly-crusted pizza, or the rice their mom makes.
But more than a culinary strut, family meal encapsulates restaurant culture. Almost everywhere, it is termed family meal; the restaurant staff is not just a staff, it’s a family. And like any great family, they enjoy the most primal and human of rituals together: the daily breaking of bread.
Can you tell I’m nostalgic for family meal? I miss the excitement of risotto bubbling on the stove for us, one cook’s insistence on baking coconut cream pies to commemorate every major and minor holiday, and salads full of farm greens that tasted of field and sun. I miss gathering on the broken chairs in the back to eat, giggling with my coworkers and passing big bowls of sesame noodles.
And so, I cook for ad hoc families, friends, and for myself — fat shrimp showered in garlic and lemon zest, lamb chops juicy with meaty glory, and salads with lactic mozzarella and sweet basil. Where there is good food, there is real family. And vice versa, too.
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