There’s a scene in The Bear—the FX series about a fine-dining chef who returns home to Chicago to take over the family sandwich shop—in which two kitchen workers are commiserating after an exhausting shift. They look at each other and exclaim: “Fuck brunch.”
It’s no secret chefs hate it. In his 2000 book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain famously disparaged the booze-laden meal that’s not quite breakfast, not quite lunch—and not much has changed in the decades since. “I would be shocked if you were to find a chef who likes it,” said Zach Meloy, the former chef-owner of Better Half, which shuttered in 2018. For restaurants that otherwise just serve dinner, brunch is a way to monetize a dining room that would be sitting empty; it’s “one of those things that most folks feel like they have to do,” Meloy said.
But that also means running a service that’s out of the norm. The kitchen staff at a dinner-oriented restaurant will typically prepare enough of a given item to last a couple of days. For a meal served only one or two days a week, though—many restaurants do brunch only on weekends—the calculus changes. “You’re doing mise en place that you don’t generally do, which is a setback,” said Soraya Khoury, the chef-owner of Hen Mother Cookhouse in Johns Creek. “It’s just getting all of this stuff done for one service that you’re not going to be able to use for the next service, because it’s seven days away.”
Brunch also requires workers to come in early—sometimes after a long night. “They work so hard in such a high-adrenaline, high-energy environment until late on a Saturday night,” Meloy said. People often turn to alcohol to wind down. “So to get people to peel themselves up out of bed, and have them put on an apron and serve hot coffee to folks in the morning, was always really challenging.” Of course, members of the restaurant staff might not be the only ones still wiping the sleep out of their eyes. “Everybody is hungover, basically,” Meloy said. “You have the brunch friends that are trying to outrun their hangover, and you’ve got the servers who are also dealing with their hangovers.”
Still, restaurants—and chefs—find ways to make it work. Now that Hen Mother Cookhouse serves breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch isn’t so terrible for Khoury anymore. Her weekday menu focuses more on smaller breakfast-plate and lunch options, while the weekends are more of an “experience,” she said, where diners can order more specialty dishes like chicken thigh biscuits and tostadas.
The clientele reflects that too, shifting from people who might be grabbing a casual bite after school drop-off to folks looking to have a fun time (and cocktails). About 75 percent of that crowd is fine, Khoury said. “But then there is a crowd that is really annoying. The other 25 percent, who are used to getting whatever they want for brunch—brunch is their time to shine. They want bottomless mimosas; they want to order it any way they want. They want to sit forever and talk.” But Khoury loves preparing breakfast dishes, and has no problem saying no to customers when requests get out of hand.
At Rooftop LOA, atop the Interlock on Atlanta’s Westside, the staff remain perky through brunch, says Eric Di Nardo, who until recently was the restaurant’s director of operations—maybe because the restaurant is still pretty new: “Our staff drink lots of coffee, as do our guests at brunch, and I think that helps. It’s easier to be well caffeinated in the morning than it is in the evening, so they’re often ready to go.”
This article appears in our February 2023 issue.