All the kitchen's a stage
May 3rd, 2011
06:00 PM ET
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In some of the world's most esteemed restaurants, there's a silent workforce unseen to those outside the industry.

The hours are long, the temperatures – and often tempers – are sweltering and the pay is nonexistent.

Meet the stagiaire: an apprentice in the craft of cooking.

“Staging is integral for young or old cooks in training so they can continue learning and expanding their knowledge of a certain cuisine,” says George Mendes, Executive Chef of Michelin-starred Aldea Restaurant in New York City.

Mendes has staged (pronounced stahjed) under the notable tutelage of Alain Passard at L'Arpege, Martín Berasategui at his eponymous San Sebastián restaurant and Ferran Adrià at elBulli.

“It's basically like going to college and not paying tuition – the cook is the student. Staging shows that the cook is passionate about his métier and hungry to learn and absorb.”

Akin to the life of an intern, staging is an unpaid, interim position – often entered into with the hopes it will lead to a full-time position on the line.

"Staging provides a test to see if it is a fit for both parties, and can also be used as an individual experience [on] how certain operations run in exchange for free labor," says Executive Chef Christopher Cipollone of Tenpenny in New York.

"For cooks, working is a way of life and working for free is not considered strange at all. It's a give and take thing."

On the other end of the spectrum, staging also acts as a way for accomplished chefs, adorned with stars, diamonds and awards in their own right, to venture to kitchens near and abroad to continue honing their craft.

It gives them a chance to walk in another chef's Dansko clogs, by working under their culinary idols and harnessing the latest avant-garde techniques – from freeze-drying pistachios to turning an evergreen branch into an aromatic spice.

Typically, a stagiaire can expect to spend 12-plus hours a day in the culinary underbelly – some never seeing the fire of a stove, but rather the peels of a potato. It's a position fueled on passion and an appetite for education, not necessarily on pedigree.

Many chefs will accept stagiaires with little to no professional cooking experience. The requirements are simple: come with a willingness to learn, a thick skin and a respect for the brigade de cuisine or kitchen hierarchy - where you may have to pay your dues as a dishwasher or man the endless slicing and dicing on the garde manger before ever touching anything near a heat source.

"Staging is a great way to get a look at the inside of a working kitchen without any commitment," says Chef Josh Capon. "For a novice or home cook, they will see how a real 'back of house' works and will be blown away by the speed, culture, language and overall environment."

A James Beard Award winner might be working next to an ex-Silicon Valleyite who pores over works by famous chefs like Escoffier and Michel Bras for pleasure. Or they might even be scrubbing ramps alongside a 14-year old – the latter especially seen in European kitchens where aspiring craftsmen begin apprenticing in their teenage years.

The stage culture also acts as a culinary passport. Just as offices around the world operate on varying standards of practice and schedules, so do the kitchens.

"As a Japanese chef, I wanted to get experience working in American and French restaurants to see how their kitchens work. They are different from Japanese restaurant kitchens," said Abe Hiroki, executive chef of EN Japanese Brasserie.

Chef Hiroki currently stages at Eric Ripert's three-Michelin Le Bernardin on his day off.

Despite the varying circumstances that bring stagiaires to new kitchens, they’re all there for a common cause: self-empowerment.

The next time you peek through the kitchen’s swinging doors at a restaurant and see heads down, knives methodically gliding through sprigs of rosemary – remember the old saying, "knowledge is power." You really are never too old to go back to school.

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Filed under: Bite • Chefs • Culture • News • Restaurants

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. John Spiers

    Circa 1970 I lied about my age to get a job in a hospital kitchen. Friends and relatives were working there, so I expected fun and games. The whip came down, it was hard work, plus fun and games. Inflation was kicking in, so I was started at $1.85 an hour when veterans were being paid $1.70. That was the first time I noticed Govt policies were distorting the market. When I realized that I could by a stereo with a paycheck, I began working double shifts on weekends to make more.

    40 years later, and many jackings of the minimum wage, plus stringent child-labor laws, it is not possible to stay in business and pay a little something. So now we put a french term to slave labor and call it a benefit.

    This trend has come to the attention of martinets in the govt, who will now crack down on it.

    But they have left in an exemption... Banks, lawyers and politicians can have unpaid labor. Not you.

    May 7, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  2. Jerv

    Hmm, good read, thanks SLT. I never knew, but it makes sense. Similiar to the internship I did in college with Kidder Peabody. Didn't get paid a thing to learn that financial advisors and brokers are lying turds.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
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