Credit: Nick Murway

Our grocery store is our coolers,” says Danny Sweis, executive chef of BellyQ, Bill Kim’s Korean-barbecue-oriented Asian fusion spot in the West Loop. “Our seasoning [for family meal] is what we use to season the [menu] dishes with. So instead of throwing salt on something, we may use fish sauce. It’s a good way to get our staff familiar with the flavors that we’re serving.”

That doesn’t quite explain the big tub of Froot Loops on the table he’s setting. “Well, there’s fun dessert and there’s boring dessert,” Sweis says, gesturing toward a bowl of apples next to the cereal. “A little sugary kick to give them a start before service.”

The rest of BellyQ’s family meal is slightly less quirky. There’s a stir-fried rice that uses up the trim from duck breasts and pork shoulder, some mangoes that were starting to get soft, a salad with bacon and kimchi coated in nuoc mam, more fish sauce, that he describes as “our version of a Cobb salad,” a vegetarian taco filling with corn and beans, and a lentil dish with broccoli stems in a yellow curry with lime, which is both vegan and gluten free. “We try to make sure everybody has something to eat,” he says.

“People come in early just for family meal,” operations manager Scott Hinden says of the employees. He’s worked at restaurants that didn’t have staff meals, and other places that did merely as a means of polishing off leftovers. Things are different at BellyQ, he says. “It’s not an afterthought here. It’s kind of the one time that we can not talk about business, and see how everybody’s actually doing, and learn something about the people you work with that’s not work related.”

At the table, a cook named Juan seems to set the tone, firing off wisecracks in all directions: he loudly congratulates a vegetarian named Thomas on having something to eat, then tells a long-tenured cook named Lupe that stages aren’t allowed to have family meal. But he’s totally sincere when he announces his appreciation for the afternoon’s special treat—the aforementioned Froot Loops. Everyone partakes of the rainbow Os. Some fill deli cups to munch as they work. Even Hinden has a bowl, as well as an apple. “The good sugar and the bad sugar,” a cook named Lovell notes.

“Yin and yang,” Juan says.

“Cooks love food that comes from their childhoods,” Sweis says. “You can do all these complex flavors and then put out some chicken tenders, and they’ll be like, ‘Cool, chicken tenders.’ ”   v

Credit: Nick Murway
Credit: Nick Murway
Credit: Nick Murway

Curry lentils with broccoli

1 c California dry lentils
1/4 lb broccoli florets
2 onions
1 T salt
1 t Madras curry powder
1 T canola oil
1 lime

Slice the onions thin and place them in a small pot with the canola oil and a touch of salt. (You want them crowded in the pot.) Caramelize the onions over low heat for at least one hour and up to two hours, stirring occasionally. Cook lentils with three cups of water, salt, and curry powder. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cook at a low simmer, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes. When the lentils are close to being done, boil the broccoli florets and add them to the lentils. Add the caramelized onions. Squeeze a little lime over the entire dish and serve.

Credit: Nick Murway
Credit: Nick Murway