BellyQ Credit: Nick Murway

The food a restaurant serves its employees during a shift is usually called “family meal.” (In industry parlance, the article is always conspicuously absent; the typically casual, buffet-style spread isn’t “a family meal” or “the family meal”—it’s just “family meal.”) The phrase conjures the image of the restaurant staff as one big clan—from the marquee chef to the lowly dishwasher, the seasoned front-of-house manager on down to the humble cub busboy—all breaking bread together before they man their respective stations for the breakneck pace of dinner service.

That’s the easy, Rockwellian image of family meal. But as we discovered when we began peering into the kitchens of some of Chicago’s best restaurants before the doors opened to the public, the reality isn’t quite so quaint. Instead of gathering around a single table, restaurant staff more often break into smaller groups, with divisions routinely forming along rank or position, as with Boka, where white-coated cooks sat at one table, black-vested servers at another. Sometimes there simply isn’t a table; at Elizabeth Restaurant, staff members stand or lean while quickly shoveling calories into their mouths. And while the family meals at spots genuinely run by families like Birrieria Zaragoza and Parachute are communal and convivial, the staff meal at Alinea is struck through with an air of chilly military discipline that’s characteristic of the kitchen. We also found that there’s a notable gap between some restaurants’ public menus and those of their employee-only feasts, often a quite deliberate one: Pub Royale, for example, eschewed its lauded Indian cuisine in favor of pizza and snickerdoodles just as Alinea abandoned all preciousness to embrace hearty, uncomplicated subcontinental fare.

Despite their differences, each staff meal offered an equally alluring opportunity to get a peek at, if not a taste of, the food professional cooks serve to other cooks—even if, as in the case of BellyQ, dinner meant an ignoble bowl of Froot Loops. And since the dishes pictured can’t be ordered from a menu, the featured chefs and cooks shared their recipes so you can serve up restaurant-quality family meal to your family at home. —Jake Malooley

Froot Loops, french fries, and stir-fry fuel BellyQ

By Michael Gebert | Photos by Nick Murway

Birrieria Zaragoza does staff meal as well as it does goat

By Mike Sula | Photos by Danielle A. Scruggs

Parachute’s staff meal is a family affair

By Kate Schmidt | Photos by Danielle A. Scruggs

When Boka is off-menu, Asian food rules

By Michael Gebert | Photos by Jamie Ramsay

Pub Royale becomes a pizzeria during off hours

By Tal Rosenberg | Photos by Jamie Ramsay