An Irish chef’s ‘family meal’ mission: a taste of the restaurant dishes that are only for insiders

Jonny Boyle of Sticks is repaying places that kept him smiling in lockdown by cooking for their staff

Think you know what’s on the menu in a restaurant? We’ve all heard about off-menu items, the secret dishes that only insiders know about. But there’s one dish, each day, that is never on the menu for any customer, no matter how in-the-know. It’s the family meal, the dinner served to the chefs and restaurant staff before or after their service.

In his cookbook, The Family Meal, Ferran Adrià lifted the lid on what the staff were served in his three Michelin star El Bulli restaurant in the north east of Spain, which was named Best Restaurant in the World a record five times. And it wasn’t exploding olives and foams. The simple but tasty recipes ranged from Mexican-style slow cooked pork to Japanese-style bream, and even a quick tortilla recipe that uses crisps instead of potatoes.

Now Jonny Boyle, one of the three people behind Sticks, a Japanese-inspired pop-up that sold out its first run at Storyboard in Islandbridge at the end of 2019, and had to cancel its sold-out dates at Fumbally Stables in 2020 due to the pandemic, is getting into the business of the family meal. Well, not quite.

Boyle put his pop-up plans on hold, and decided it was time to give a little back to the special places that had kept him smiling through the pandemic. So he devised a small scale plan to feed the feeders, for restaurants that have a small staff and don’t normally have a family meal. He is heading in, footing the bill, and dishing up a four-course, Japanese-inspired meal to say thank you.

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“None of the restaurants I ever worked in were fancy enough for a family meal,” says Boyle, who worked in kitchens right through college, rising from dishwasher to line chef, and now works as a creative director. “We thought it would be wrong to do a pop-up right now when restaurants are struggling and about to go through a phase of make or break. And we haven’t done anything since 2019.

So we thought, we can do a family meal a couple of times, give a little bit back, and maybe get a bit of love for what we’re doing. It’s also a nice way to get a little bit of attention back on Sticks.”

Sticks is inspired by the Japanese skewer culture of yakitori, kushiyaki and kushikatsu, but it also brings in global influences. Boyle describes what they do as delivering flavour bombs on sticks.

Their 2019 pop-ups, which were sold out before most people even heard about them, focused on a seven-course omakase menu with accompanying natural wines and sakes.

For their Family Meal pop-ups, he has repurposed an airline trolley with a small Konro grill for his work station. It is typical of what is used in Japanese yakitori restaurants. It is a neat set-up which ensures that he doesn’t get in the way in the restaurant kitchen.

So what’s on the menu? Last weekend, the crew at Hang Dai were treated to a family meal on bamboo skewers of yaki onigiri (a grilled rice ball), tsukune (Japanese chicken meatball skewers seasoned with fresh ginger, garlic, scallions, and sesame oil), barley miso pork belly, and toasted marshmallow ice cream.

And next weekend, he will be heading into the Fish Shop in Stoneybatter to feed the team there.

It is purely a chef-only invitation at the moment, but Boyle does have plans for the future. “Come September, we’ll figure out what we do next,” he says.

“We have an idea of what we’d like to do. Finding places was hard. It might get easier, but it might not, who knows? So, I’m just parking that for now. Definitely, the idea is to come back and do some more pop-ups.”

After that, Boyle will decide what direction makes most sense. "Stay tuned for more," he says. And that means staying glued to @sticks_dublin on Instagram and setting an alert.