The secret restaurant dishes that are only for chefs

This food is not just off-menu: it’s simply never available to regular diners like you and me

Family meal: Jess Murphy (second left) and staff during a break at Kai, in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Going off-menu at a high-profile or cult restaurant provides the ultimate culinary bragging rights. Being a regular is not enough: you also need the inside track to know what specific unlisted dish to order with an insouciant nod to the waiter.

In reality, this doesn’t happen very often. And in more recent times the underground menu has become a bit of a marketing tool, a “secret topping” on a pizza, or a sliver of foie gras that’s not on the menu but always appears as a surprise course.

There is, however, one dish that is served every day that never makes it to the dining room, no matter how well connected the diner is. It's the family meal, made famous by Ferran Adrià in his cookbook of the same name, the dinner served to the chefs and restaurant staff before or after their service.

Here’s how it works in five of Ireland’s top restaurants.



There are two family meals each day at Aimsir, in Co Kildare. The first one, at noon, is a late breakfast/brunch; the second family meal is before service, at 4.30pm. All the team sit down together for 30 minutes or so.

"We have a rota where one person is in charge of the meals for the week and delegates certain jobs to the other chefs, and then it changes to another person the following week," says Jordan Bailey, the head chef of the two-Michelin-star restaurant.

“But the chef responsible for the meals that week will always do the main part of the meal while the others will take care of the sides. When the designated chef is planning their meal for the week we use a template to build the meals for the week. For example, one day is meat, one day is fish, and two days are vegetable-focused. It provides a more balanced week and gets them to think a little out of the box instead of using mince and chicken every time.”

The dishes change daily and weekly, so there isn’t much repetition. It is very much driven by the chef responsible for that week, so there aren’t really specific preferences. “I know it’s going to sound very cliched saying this as the restaurant is called Aimsir, but it really does depend on the weather,” says Bailey. “On colder days, a warming chilli or curry would be favourite, but then on hotter days you really can’t beat a chicken Caesar salad. But if I had to pick one, it has to be a lasagne with a bucketload of crispy cheese on top.”


Back open after a lengthy closure, the family meal at Kai, in Galway, happens during the day and at night. It's not in the kitchen.

Kai, in Galway

"The first shift sits down at 3.30pm, and the second shift, who arrive in later, sits down at 4.30pm," says Jess Murphy, head chef and co-owner of Kai with her husband, David Murphy. "Because we have a late lunch, at night everyone sits down after service together, around 10.30pm or 11pm. And we have a glass of wine or whatever. The last table of customers will be there, and we just ask them if they mind if we have our staff meal. And they are like, 'No, work away.' And a lot of people have complimented us about it and said, 'It's really awesome that you all sit down together.' It's all of us, from the kitchen porters to the chefs to the front-of-house."

Murphy says that they generally eat whatever is on the menu, although it’s not a case of everyone tucking into lobster. They have a zero-waste approach, so between trimmings and the menu, they eat well. “We have a lot of vegetarians and vegans who work in Kai, so it’s just whatever is left over from lunch. And, meatwise, it will be beef or pork rack trims, which are divine,” she says. “We basically eat what everybody else eats. I think it’s like house wine. You have to give your staff what you’re selling, otherwise how else can they sell it?”

Bastible and Clanbrassil House

At 3.45pm, just before the restaurant and kitchen teams set up for service, all of the staff sit down together for the family meal for about 30 minutes. "As we have two restaurants right around the corner from each other, normally one restaurant will cook a family meal and invite the other team over when it's ready. It makes sense that way," says Barry FitzGerald, chef and co-owner of Bastible and Clanbrassil House, in Dublin, his wife, Claire-Marie Thomas. "There is no real rota, but normally we take it in turns leading, and others pitch in to help do the finishing touches."

Bastible and Clanbrassil House: owner Barry Fitzgerald (right) with staff gathering for family meal. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

FitzGerald says that there are no specific dishes: the only requirement is that it be a clever use of what’s around and needs to be used up. “I don’t mind ordering some veggies or dry goods in for the family meals, but there are always perfectly good protein offcuts to use,” he says. “We often buy flatbreads from the Halal shop across the road and do a Middle Eastern-style meal with kebabs and lots of grilled veggies and salads.”

And the best family meal he's ever had? "I worked in St John, about 10 years ago. They would sit down together twice a day for family meal," he says. "Mondays, staff breakfast was always a full English, which was a good cure after Sunday night."

Chapter One with Mickael Viljanen

The family meal has definitely become a more usual tradition in Ireland, according to Mickael Viljanen, the chef-patron of Chapter One, in Dublin. "Most kitchens in mainland Europe would have had the tradition for years, and it has evolved here to become the same," he says. "For bigger hotels it is difficult to co-ordinate a large number of staff to just one meal together, but most restaurants would be doing this."

Their family meal is at 4pm and usually takes 30-45 minutes. There is a rota in the kitchen, detailing who cooks on what day. “It’s taken pretty seriously,” he says. “As the saying goes, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’ There are no specific dishes, but the lads will always try and bring balance to the meal. Salad and greens are essential.”

When it comes to favourites, Viljanen says that fish pie is definitely up there, as are Thai green curry and a good lasagne, all hearty dishes that set the team up for service. "My favourite staff meals by a mile were cooked by Ahmet Dede from Baltimore when I worked with him, and he still cooks them in Dede. Magic!" he says.


At Spitalfields in Dublin, the family meal is normally served just before 4pm, when the front-of-house staff arrive for their shift. They all sit down together and chats over the food.

"Everyone in the kitchen contributes to the family meal," says Stephen McAllister, chef-patron. "Colin Brogan will do the main dish, Lee Harris might organise the side and salad, and Romix Buneng Iu will always have something sweet to keep everyone happy."

Spitalfields: staff sit down for dinner before they open to the public. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

McAllister says family meal is generally made from whatever is available and handy. “We all love vegetables, and a lovely side of honey-roast carrots with dukkah is a real favourite. That might be alongside a rich Bolognese-style meat dish with a lovely light salad,” he says. “Service starts at 5.30pm, so we have a good hour or so to enjoy and digest our food before service.”

One of his most memorable family meals was from when he was training, many years ago. “It was a very simple dish of spaghetti with garlic, lemon and olive oil. Four ingredients,” he says. “I was so disappointed that the chef who made it didn’t put any effort into his staff meal and called him out on it. That was until I dug my fork into the pot. It was nothing short of spectacular. I cook this on a regular basis now.”

They have one family meal that is a bit different from the others. “Colin loves to do battered sausages at the end of service on a Saturday night for staff, with a hard-earned pint. And sometimes customers join in, no joke,” he says.