For two and a half of my three years spent living in Savannah, I was lucky enough to work at Elizabeth on 37th. Most people of Savannah suffer from a rap star’s sense of self importance when it comes to their city. They talk about local art galleries as if they were the Louvre. They will claim there is no city nicer, finer, more urbane, etc. When they mention Elizabeth on 37th, they will describe culinary feats unmatched by the rest of the world. They may be exaggerating, but just a little. It is world class.
I had the opportunity to eat there as a customer many times in that two and a half years. On my first day working there I was behind the service bar. A waiter ran up and said he needed two gin and tonics on the fly. I made them and set them on his tray. he picked them up and slammed them down in two gulps. “Thanks.” he said. A few days later one of the line cooks came out with what looked like a piece of cheesecake with blueberry compote. He told me they made too many and gave me the plate. I didn’t eat it. I had been warned. It was pure lard molded to look like cake. So when the first time after my hire date that I came in to eat and was told by a coworker that employees are not allowed to tip, I thought he was trying to get me killed by whoever ended up waiting on me. He wasn’t. Since we tip shared, we didn’t tip. Whatever hazing I was to suffer apparently ended with the lard cake.
As I said, I ate as a customer many times, but some of my favorite meals there were Saturday night staff meals. The kitchen crew rotated weekends and were given a fifty dollar budget to feed everyone. Sometimes it was gourmet, a line cook showing off. Sometimes it was simple, burgers and tater tots. At one point the restaurant hired someone from Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons. She fried chicken and braised collards and we bought her beer after beer after beer. That same former Deen employee had a bad night some time later. Her plates were slow coming out, not cooked properly, and so on. The waiters were understandably impatient and the rest of the kitchen staff was nagging her about timing with their dishes all night. Unfortunately it was her turn to cook the staff meal and she was ticked off at everyone. We got unseasoned boiled chicken and white rice. We made it taste like sriracha.
The beauty of staff meals is that they are everyday, inexpensive (no foie gras I’m afraid) meals but made with skill, technique, experience, and inventiveness. It’s not mac n’ cheese. It’s macaroni in a beschamel with four cheeses and bacon. It’s not hot wings. It’s honeyed hoisin grilled chicken wings. One of the most thumbed through books in my kitchen is Staff Meals from Chanterelle by Chef David Watluck of New York’s restaurant Chanterelle and his poor forgotten ghostwriter. With the exception of one over cinnamoned and cocoa powdered venison chili, the book has not let me down.
More recently, a sous chef I worked with here in Birmingham got a wild hair and made a pizza for everyone to snack on. It stands as one of my favorite staff meals to date, mainly because it was so simple, even though it was more of a staff snack. I hovered around the table waiting for everyone to try some, counting the pieces and calculating my odds of getting another taste. Not knowing the exact recipe he used, I made a loose enough facsimile recently and plan on doing it again and again. Start with a basic pizza dough, and as a sauce use pureed chick peas seasoned with salt and pepper and thinned just a little with chicken stock. Top with sliced Roma tomatoes and Vidalia onions, kalamata olives, mozzarella, Parmesan, summer sausage, and oregano. Cook on a preheated pizza stone at 500º for about 12 -15 minutes. I believe he topped it after cooking with a chiffonade of basil, which I bought, but as you can tell from the picture forgot to add. It was still good.