An Interview with Karen Stabiner

The Family Table

We recently chatted with Karen Stabiner. Stabiner, a renowned food journalist, just spent two years with Michael Romano to create a new cookbook, Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home. The book  takes the reader backstage at some of New York’s most famous  restaurants — Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, Maialino and others, to find out what chefs cook for the staff before they serve their customers.

We talked to Karen about the inspiration and purpose of the book – Here’s what she had to say:

“The people who work at your favorite restaurant need to eat, too. At Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants in New York City, the staff sits down together twice a day for what they call “family meal,” cooked by their colleagues. Family Table is a collection of these behind-the-scenes recipes, the best food you’ll never see on a menu from some of New York’s most beloved restaurants.

It’s exactly the kind of food a home cook aspires to make: Great taste, lots of variety, prepared under the same constraints we face – it has to be pretty quick to prepare, it has to allow the cook to do three other things at the same time, and it’s based on what’s on hand and what’s economical.

Family meal is democracy in action: the kitchen staffers divide up responsibilities, but anyone with a great recipe can chime in, which is why a Union Square Cafe porter contributes Dominican Beef and a Gramercy Tavern prep chef makes her signature marinated chicken every Saturday, midday.Karen Stabiner

And it’s a world tour: The dishes have nothing, necessarily, to do with the restaurant menu but everything to do with happy food memories. Cola-braised short ribs show up at Maialino, an Italian restaurant, because the cook’s from outside New Orleans. At The Modern, the elegant restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, the executive chef is Alsatian, but family meal might be spicy bacon and eggs with picked kimchi.

Collecting recipes – from four dozen contributors – was a crazily liberating experience. Most home cooks have specialties, because who has the time to learn everything? Suddenly, thanks to the family meal cooks, I can make not just Italian food but Japanese, Chinese, South American, Spanish, and I must admit, some new Italian dishes that have quickly become favorites.

There was one more step to take, to make “Family Table” complete: We’ve included the stories of that backstage family, one by one. There are 30 stories sprinkled throughout the book, to introduce the reader not only to the chef whose name is on the menu but to the people who turn his or her vision into one beautiful plate after another.

What defines a cookbook, usually, is a single perspective, whether it’s a chef’s, a country or region, or a method. I have a battered copy of Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef because it tells me not only what to do but why; I co-wrote Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino Cookbook because talking to him, and learning about his food, was like traveling abroad and through time; my copy of Nancy Silverton’s Desserts falls open naturally to the page with the recipe I’ve made for my daughter for 23 years straight.

What defines Family Table, though, is the simple desire to sit down together, take a break in the day, and share a lovely meal. It’s what the restaurant families and our families have in common – in addition, now, to 150 great ways to celebrate that bond.”

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