Open kitchens in restaurants are popular for one reason: We all like a peek behind the culinary curtain into the world of chefs, sous chefs, line cooks and even dishwashers. And I’m not just speaking of high-end restaurants, where tables in the kitchen come at a premium price.
I remember a lunch years ago at the counter at Heaven on Seven in Chicago, watching line cooks crank out order after order with practiced skill, plating the food beautifully and effortlessly and tossing used skillets, still hot, into a deep stainless sink. The hostess apologized for not having a table for me during the busy lunch hour, but I was in, well, heaven at the counter.
So imagine my delight when I heard about Marissa Guggiana’s new cookbook, Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America’s Top Restaurants, published last month by Welcome Books. This is the ultimate peek behind the curtain. It’s not just watching chefs cook, it’s getting to see what they cook for their staffs before the restaurant opens.
To write Off the Menu, Guggiana traveled the country, visiting the kitchens of more than 50 top restaurants, sampling and documenting staff meals. The result is this beautiful cookbook with more than 100 recipes, all adapted for the home cook. Thoughtful writing and charming photos — more than 160 of them — give readers an intimate glimpse of life in professional kitchens.
Guggiana is a food activist, writer and fourth generation meat purveyor. She co-founded the Butcher’s Guild, a national organization promoting and supporting artisanal butchery. Her first book, Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers, profiles 50 innovative whole-animal butchers and chefs and shares their most impressive recipes.
For my first Off the Menu meal, I chose a recipe by Russ Moore, chef/owner of Camino in Oakland, Calif. and former chef at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse’s Cafe. The recipe is based on his Baked Clams with Chiles, Saffron and Tomatoes. Moore uses his house-canned tomatoes. I used purchased canned tomatoes — and more available, more affordable mussels.
Chicagoan Terry Boyd writes the Blue Kitchen blog (blue-kitchen.com), where this was posted.