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Nothing Beats a Family Meal

April 10, 2017 | Frank Bonanno

Nothing sets the tone for a good night like a great meal.

Marco, my son, has been having a tough week (that’s his arm in the picture, reaching for a thigh). He’s an official bench warmer on his lacrosse team. He was, not kidding, kicked out of a class called Gospel Values.  Twice. A recent growth spurt has thrown his wardrobe in crisis, his hair won’t cooperate in the mornings, he has something that he thinks looks like a mustache or a beard, and it is not funny when I tease him about it, nobody gets how deep he is when he’s listening to music, or how athletic or smart he is in his mind, and. Well. He’s thirteen. It’s tough.

I have to tell you, I’ve been having a tough week myself. Wednesday night I should have been on the Luca line; I should have been calling a dozen people who need to have conversations with me; I did not have the time or energy or will to be in my home cooking for an unappreciated thirteen year old who’s been, in all honesty, a bit of a dick lately. I come home to a broken dishwasher, an empty refrigerator, and the oldest son can’t be bothered to come away from the computer to say hello. I tidy up. There’s a rhythm to washing the dishes, maybe the warm soapy water calms me. I start chopping onions. The day, the week, kind of slips away as they caramelize with the garlic and peppers. The only buns in the house are stale, and the cheese in the drawer is starting to mold, so I cut away the mold, and I butter up the buns and with the cheddar grated across the top they toast up real nice. It smells good. When Marco bursts in with his 80 pound backpack, frustrated at the world and angry with his thirteen-ness, he’s greeted by the crackle of brats, the steam of the beer floating off the peppers. He wants to be angry with me. He doesn’t want to talk to me, he wants to shout, and he does. He shouts from the bathroom as he’s washing his hands that he’s not even in the mood for brats. Says he doesn’t even like cheese on the bun as he pulls out the chair. Asks where the mustard is as his brother comes out of the computer fog, pulling up a chair of his own. We talk, we laugh, they eat three brats each and help wash dishes after.

Family meal sets the tone in the restaurants, too– again, nothing fancy or composed with tweezers and heavy sauces. I’m talking about meals that capture you by the nose first–cornbread releasing steam on a counter top, the depth of a good chicken broth, onions caramelizing in aromatic heaps. Meals where the simplicity of cabbage, rice, leftover scraps from bygone meals–come together with thought and attention and are shared with laughter and stories that inevitably come back to food.

When I worked at Villa Victoria in high school, I’d come in from the sun to a darkened dining room, people lighting candles, straightening table cloths, cooks in the final throes of dinner prep. Before putting on the aprons and knotting the ties, we’d gather over pasta, breakdown the guest count and VIPs for the night, talk about errors we need to overcome, and little successes that needed celebrating. Share stories. Gossip.  As I got deeper into my career, I realized that the better the restaurant, the better the family meal. Again, not because the food was any fancier, but because I think there was just a love for the process of cooking, for food, for meals and service. There was more out there to be had than spaghetti and meatballs, more ingredients to work with, more scraps to be reinvented and re-conceived. Family meals were full blown affairs where every station chipped in to bring something to the table and servers walked in the door with desserts and baked goods. Try this, it’s good.

Sometimes it’s a hardship, family meal. It’s 11:00pm and the cooks are ready to wrap, go home after getting their asses handed to them on a Friday night, when damn it the front of house is hungry for a meal. Haven’t they been snacking all night? It feels like they’ve been snacking all night. Or maybe the chef is too shortsighted to figure out how to creatively, economically feed a staff, or three people are vegan and two are pescatarian and one has a gluten aversion and just to hell with everybody anyway.

Sometimes it’s impossible, family meal. At Osteria Marco, there are 37 people working on any given night (an enormous meal by any standards); shifts start in staggered waves; the dining room always has guests. How do you sit down together? Hold the food warm? Where do go to dine? What about the cleanup after? We haven’t given up on it, mind you, but at the Osteria and at Russell’s Smokehouse, that means the executive chef steps up and cooks it himself. Sometimes it’s at the end of the night instead of the beginning, and sometimes only a few late night ragtag survivors partake. No, we haven’t quite given up on it, but I understand why some restaurants do.

That same hardship and impossibility of a family meal resonates at home. Sometimes you feel unappreciated. It’s hard to plan, to shop, to economically, creatively feed people. There are too many tastes and aversions at play. Who has the time?

I haven’t given up on it, though, on my thirteen year old with his big feet and crazy hair and insane growth spurts, on the fourteen year old who only wants bacon and cookies, on my vegetarian wife and puppy scrambling around my feet as I cook in a kitchen with a broken dishwasher–and neither should you.

Because nothing sets the tone for a great night like a family meal.