Korean food served cafeteria style isn’t what you’d expect to see at Girl & the Goat, the perpetually popular small-plates restaurant from Stephanie Izard. And most people never will.
But on a recent rainy Wednesday afternoon in the West Loop, a couple hours before the doors open to the public, 50-odd cooks, dishwashers, and front-of-house staff from the restaurant, its sister diner Little Goat, as well as some accountants for the Boka Restaurant Group (which has offices upstairs and to which Izard’s spots belong) line up to fill their bowls with smoked pork lettuce wraps with ssamjang sauce, a mixture of red chile paste and bean paste; bibimbap with soy-marinated
soft-boiled eggs; and doenjang jjigae, a soup made with fermented soybean paste, shiitake mushrooms, and tofu.
The sous chef who opens each day is responsible for preparing the family meal. Today it was Rhan Whang, who spent four hours making all the food. “These guys are working over 12 hours a day,” he says of his coworkers. “You have to give them something good.”
Gathering for preshift meals isn’t a given in the restaurant industry, some of the line cooks say. “This is the first place I’ve worked at where we actually sit down and eat,” says Melanie Krawiec, a line cook who’s worked at several fine-dining restaurants. Others report that during their time in the industry, they’ve eaten the majority of their preshift meals while standing.
As for what they eat at Girl & the Goat, that’s up to the sous chefs—but burgers, Italian sandwiches, tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches with soup, and teriyaki chicken with fried rice are all common. “When Rhan makes us real Korean food,” line cook Alyssa Reich says, “it is top dollar every time.”
And then there’s hot dog day.
“We shouldn’t discuss hot dog day,” says a line cook who asks not to be identified. “It gets very weird. Later in the day, people put hot dogs in weird places.” That can include water bottles, back pockets, backpacks, or lockers of fellow staff members, a second line cook explains. Once she found five franks stuffed inside a glove in her locker.
“Oh my god!” the first cook responds. “All those things you just said, I did to you.”
“Normally,” the second cook says, “we have really civilized, nice family meals.”
The respite doesn’t last long: a half hour after the food is served, most of the cooks are back to work in the kitchen. Izard stops by to fill a couple of deli containers with the now-decimated remains of the meal, which she’ll take to eat while working down the street from Girl & the Goat at her newest venture, the Chinese restaurant Duck Duck Goat. When she was a cook, Izard says, she tried to make sure she had time to sit down for family meal. But things have changed over the years as the Top Chef winner has assumed the hectic schedule of a restaurateur. “I usually [just] sit down for breakfast nowadays,” she says. v
1 c doenjang (soybean paste)
1/2 c gochujang (red pepper paste)
2 pieces perilla leaves, roughly chopped
1 c scallion, thinly sliced
1/4 c sweet onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 T granulated sugar
2 T sesame oil
1 T mirin
1 T toasted sesame seeds
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl, then garnish with more sliced onions and toasted sesame seeds. Serve with your favorite meat.