Saturday, November 24, 2012

City Grocery Staff Meal: Oxford, Mississippi

cut my teeth waiting tables at Friendly's, a New England chain known for its ice cream and diner-style food.  While it was far from fine dining, I learned how to hustle and multi-task, turning dozens of tables each shift.  I enjoyed the camaraderie of the diverse staff, and I came to understand the value of customer relationships.  During breaks we ordered a half-price menu item and wolfed it down in the solitude of a back booth.  The clamwich was my favorite, washed down with a humongous strawberry milk that would make the Mayor of NYC cringe. 

After three or four years, I itched to try my skills at more upscale dining and landed a summer job at restaurant on the South Shore of Massachusetts called the Hummarock River House.  Owned by a Greek husband and wife team, they specialized in Mediterranean inspired seafood.  I quickly came to realize the difficulty in juggling multiple courses, learning cocktail language, and discerning between Chardonnay and Chablis, all at a time when I had barely sipped Boone's Farm around a camp fire. To say I was in over my head was an understatement, but the staff were kind and my fondest memories of that induction into fine dining, happened around 5pm each night.  By that time, we had finished our prep work, had a little downtime before the first early-birds arrived, and as a staff we sat down to eat.  Typically we had soup, ladled out of a big cauldron.  Sometimes the kitchen would serve us a new dish or prepare one of the specials for the night so that we could better describe the flavors.  This time of the day was special, the calm before the storm.  It reminded me that each shift was a new day, and a chance to prove to myself that I could stay out of the weeds that service.  

I eventually grew more comfortable on the floor and was even asked to be cocktail waitress, when strangely, after hours, the fine restaurant turned into a wild bar scene.  I often retell stories of the bar fights and the drunken guy who managed to lose his pants but wanted to order a beer, naked.  I, however, had not thought about the staff dinners until recently, when I learned that Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy, wrote an entire, beautiful, culinary book about staff meals, the world around.  The book, titled “Come In, We’re Closed: an Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurantsincludes City Grocery, here in Oxford, Mississippi.  Recently, I had the pleasure of joining a staff meal with Jody Eddy and Executive Chef John Currence, celebrating Jody's book tour.

City Grocery, located in the heart of Oxford's scenic square, is known for its southern cuisine classics like shrimp and grits as well as seasonal inventive twists like Mississippi fried quail and waffles with spicy pepper jelly and green onion coulis.  On this early evening, the front of the house was quiet, aside from a few servers checking last minute place settings, and others sitting together folding napkins for the impending rush.  The bartender methodically loaded ice, sliced citrus, and stocked liquor.  The kitchen was another story, bustling with preparations for the evening meal. Cucumbers were sliced, sheet pans of crostinis were toasted, and pots simmered on the stove all in a highly orchestrated frenetic symphony.   

At some point, with little fanfare, the kitchen staff emerged and loaded the bar top with a steaming cast iron pot of chicken and dumplings, cornbread, cucumber and onion salad, and bananas foster bread pudding. The waitstaff brought plates and joined in, family style, serving themselves and sitting together at back tables. Conversation flowed across tables, stories were shared, and it truly felt like a family dinner. 

The chicken and dumplings were unlike any I have experienced. The chicken was loosely shredded and the consistency was that of a rich stew. The moist cornbread acted as the dumplings, sopping the juices, and the fresh cucumber and onion salad with herbes de Provence, added a bright note. I overindulged a bit on the main course, but left a little room to sample the bread pudding, fortunately, as it was crispy on the outer edges and custardy on the inside with chunks of banana, and then drizzled with the brown sugar rum sauce and a dollop of freshly whipped cream.

Looking around at the assembled team, I could not help but think about the importance of culture to business, particularly in the restaurant industry where staff is working together, in a swiftly paced environment, as a team. While I loved the solitude of my clamwich, at Friendly's, and realize there is no down-time in that type of fast-casual environment, I have to wonder what the impact would have been, if we could have taken 20 minutes each day to break bread together.

As the staff finished eating, they swiftly cleared the tables and the bar, and within moments, the tempo again changed to the feeling you get ten minutes before anyone shows up to your party - a little excited energy, a bit of last minute movement to complete lingering tasks and a delicious quiet that is guaranteed to transform momentarily.  Everyone was ready, in the groove, satiated by a great meal and inspired by their team.