Behind-the-Scenes at Taco Maria’s Staff Meal
Whatever the name—staff or family meal, Saturday or Sunday Supper—a shared meal on one table unites a restaurant. At Taco Maria, family and work life converge and a comfortable intimacy flows into the preparation of each dish; heightening the radishes’ crispness and exalting the blue-gray of the blue corn tortillas.
Every day, before the restaurant opens for dinner, the staff shares a meal prepared by their own. During the week, a chef may create a meal inspired by various, cultural cuisines or, perhaps, from his or her own heritage. Saturdays are reserved for Mexican-based cooking; utilizing the quality, Alta California ingredients Taco Maria is famous for.
Chef/Owner Carlos Salgado says that anyone versed in the soul of Mexican food is familiar with the generous spread that shapes family meals: grilled and braised meats; the staples: rice and beans; a variety of condiments and salsas; and hand-pressed tortillas for making tacos.
Like many socially-conscious restaurants, Taco Maria is an advocate for local, organic produce. At its core is heirloom corn, hailing from small farms in Mexico, and composing all of the restaurant’s masa.
“Just as we do with the menu, it’s very important [how] we guide our choices about the family meal,” Chef Carlos says. “We use the same ethos, same responsibly-grown vegetables, same quality of ingredients.”
The restaurant staff sits down together at the same tables as guests do; taking a moment to reflect upon the past week, last night’s dinner service and life in general. While sipping Agua Frescas prepared by the front of house team, laughter circulates over soft chatter and the wooden benches are transformed into a dinner table back home. Their conversations intermix, at once harmonious and dissonant, and soon, bellies become full and nourished by the collaborative effort.
“It’s an opportunity for us to show that kind of warmth and hospitality to each other –it sets the tone for how we treat each other,” Chef Carlos says. “Everyone here is a guest; everyone is treated this way.”
When Chef Carlos checks in at the head of the table, he’s met with a gaze that lies in both reverence and trust. He is simultaneously a firm executive chef and a caring brother, often urging his staff to eat a real breakfast, give time to contemplate and actually sit down.
It’s known that being a chef is a rigorous and physically-demanding profession. It requires long, dedicated hours to hone skill and artistry, resulting in late nights and even earlier days. Chef Carlos knows this, and knows what it’s like to want for an environment with sustenance.
He recalls his first time eating meatloaf. He was twenty-four, working at Winterland in San Francisco.
“For a staff meal, it was shockingly comforting,” he said.
It was then that he knew he was in the right place. At that moment, he saw how a restaurant staff could be more than a “rag tag band of pirates,” where everyone works for themselves in isolation.
“The crew was more dynamic, creative and had more trust,” he said.
Perhaps that is why Taco Maria continues to be a fundamental force in Orange County and the nation’s dining scene. The restaurant staff is full of people who love what they do; they have an inherent respect for the ingredients and a desire to honor them. The staff meal also lends itself in this way.
“It’s an opportunity to show off your craft; create a dialogue with the flavor,” Chef Carlos says.
In addition to self-care and a familial foundation, the staff meal also serves as an expression of identity. It is a jumping off point for exploration, both as a young chef and as a whole, influential entity. A chef may choose an ingredient—last month it was pineapple—and this may spark an analysis of how seasons affect its sweetness and how winter is the best for full flavor. The conversation rounds the table as chefs share their knowledge and discover new ways to create together.
A special thank-you goes out to Sous Chef Roland Rubalcava for preparing this beautiful spread for Saturday Staff Meal!
Rules for Family Meal at Taco Maria
1. Every day we are open, we will provide a complete, delicious, nutritious meal available to our work family, at 4 p.m. sharp.
2. We will use the same natural, high-quality ingredients we serve on our menu to guests. Market vegetables, natural and humanely raised meats, sustainable seafood.
3. The family meal must be balanced, nutritious, and thoughtful. The meal must include a main, a vegetable side or salad, starch, and optionally a dessert.
4. Family meal must not be overly heavy or rich. It should satisfy but not weigh us down or be overly indulgent or unhealthy.
5. We will accommodate any special diets among our work family. Vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians should enjoy the same balanced meal as everyone else. The same goes for any special dietary restrictions due to moral or religious limitations observed by members of our work family.
6. We will all sit to enjoy our meal and each other’s company. Get to know each other. Talk about the food. Talk about our lives. Build community.
7. On Saturday, the last evening family meal of the week, family meal must be Mexican, or South American, or reflect the cultural origins of the person leading the menu that week. Front of house staff is encouraged to provide a seasonal, non-alcoholic drink to accompany the food.
Taco Maria | 3313 Hyland Ave, Costa Mesa, CA 92626 | (714) 538-8444 | www.tacomaria.com