So you want to cook professionally and think you have the mettle to work your way up the line? Or you’re a culinary student who’s looking for an internship to get real world experience? Welcome, young stagiaire!
A stage (rhymes with corsage) is the French term for an unpaid internship or apprenticeship, where a trainee volunteers in a kitchen in order to learn new techniques. This can apply to inexperienced cooks, or to experienced professionals who want to learn new cuisines. Ferran Adria’s El Bulli was flooded with applications from aspiring stagiaires, for instance, all of whom were at the top of their fields in their home countries.
Having decided that I wasn’t going to continue with culinary school, I immediately began scouting for new kitchens to work in. The restaurant would need to be 1) located near my apartment (so that getting home at midnight would be relatively painless), 2) offer a supportive teaching environment (not just take advantage of free labor), and 3) serve non-French food (I was definitely experiencing some cream and butter fatigue). With my shortlist of candidates in hand, I fired off an email to the first restaurant.
Days passed and no response to my perfectly crafted email. That’s when I realized I was going to have to simply walk in and talk to chefs directly.
The next day, I checked the lunch and dinner hours for each restaurant. I wanted to walk in right as lunch service was winding down but before the rush of dinner prep, so that I’d be more likely to catch the attention of a chef. Around 3 pm, I put my best clogged foot forward, walked into a restaurant and announced that I wanted to talk to the chef about working there.
A stern-faced woman strode out to meet me. Great, I thought, I like seeing female leadership in kitchens. I stated my case, mentioned that I’d had some classes at French Culinary, and wanted to come in to work. Then I mentioned that I had a full time job, 9 to 5. She coughed a bit. “Our pm line cooks start at 2 pm and leave around midnight. Our weekend brunch cooks start at 7 am and leave at 5 pm.” I gulped. “That’s ok, I’m happy to work weekends, either morning or night. I know it sounds crazy to want to work on the line after having another full time job, but I really do want to learn. Plus, I live just a few blocks away, I can be here in minutes if someone doesn’t show, I pull my weight and I don’t call out sick.” She nodded and said, “Ok, come back next Saturday, 2 pm. Bring your knives.”
Yes, that was so easy! I strode out the door beaming. I threw out the cover letters and resumes I’d pre-printed. Was it really that easy to just walk into a restaurant and land a job?
The next week, I went back to the restaurant, knife bag and chef whites in hand. Chef met me and pointed downstairs: “You can leave your bag in the office, change in this bathroom and there’s jackets on that shelf.” As I headed towards the jackets, a line cook from the morning shift was clocking out. He smiled and introduced himself. “Oh, are you here to audition for the line? It gets pretty crazy, sometimes they do 300 covers a night. Good luck!” I could feel my heart pounding in my ears. Did he really say 300 covers? But this is a 60-seat restaurant, that would mean 5 turns a night! How is that even possible? Wait, what the hell am I doing here, this line is going to eat me alive!
Back upstairs, Chef handed me a sheaf of papers. Liability waivers, permissions to stage and trail (shadow another cook), documents that reiterated the restaurant was under no obligation to hire me. Fine. I signed away my rights to sue the restaurant in the event that hot oil was spilled on my foot, then headed back downstairs into the prep kitchen.
First test, knife skills (obviously). A sous chef came in with some celery stalks. “You’ll need a chef’s knife and a peeler,” he said. “Is it ok if I use your knife?” I nodded my consent. He showed me how each piece should be peeled and sliced, then watched me to make sure I was doing it correctly. After the celery came cucumbers (no seeds), then limes (no pith). For the grapes, he showed me how to stack them between two plastic lids, then slide my knife in between to halve the grapes, a dozen at a time. “That’s super cool!” I exclaimed. “Yeah, it’s a nifty little trick,” he said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the prep kitchen vibrated with activity. And by that, I mean the room was pounding with the beats of Drake and reggaeton. Orders, jokes and insults ricocheted around the room. “Someone get that rice out of the combi!” “Why’s there a waffle still in the iron? Is this from last weekend?” “Shit, that ain’t a waffle, that’s a brick!” “Where did all the ginger go? Are we out?” The frat boy kitchen of Anthony Bourdain’s youth was alive and well—I’d never heard so many people yelling “Nigger!” at each other in my life.
Five pm. My fingers were black from picking Thai basil off the stem, but overall the afternoon had been pretty calm. I went upstairs and was assigned to trail Sauce (not his real name?) and man the deep fryer. It was simple, I would watch Sauce work the saute station (the most complex role on the line), while dropping fish, oysters or samosas into the fryer whenever they were called. It was early in the evening, but a steady stream of orders was already flooding the board. The line was cramped, a steel-clad closet with six bodies bobbing, twisting and dodging each other like boxers, while surrounded by searing hot pans. Sauce nudged me, “Did you hear? You need another order of samosas.”
I turned back to the deep fryer. My oysters clung stubbornly to each other, and I never seemed to have the eight pieces I needed to fill one order. The samosas sat scrunched in the fryer basket, and I tried to neaten the edges a bit as I arranged them on a plate. Chef was impatient, “Don’t bother stacking the samosas, just plate them and pass them down!” Sauce paused his game to give me some advice, “Don’t bother with tongs, it’s fastest to take things out of the fryer using your fingers.” My bare hands? I gingerly picked up a samosa. Two, three, four pieces, just ignore the stinging. The counter overlooking the kitchen was now full. Are customers watching me? There was no time to think about it. “Hey, the trash can’s getting full, can you step on it?” Sauce motioned with his foot, and I dutifully shoved my water and grease-resistant clog into the can to compress its contents. “Great, now we don’t have to empty it quite yet!” The night wore on, a unending battle against the accumulating dup sheets. “Ok, you’re done for tonight!” Chef pulled me aside to let the real pros handle the dinner rush. It was only 7 pm.
In retrospect, the break up was inevitable. The restaurant was far too busy to be a good teaching environment; I was far too green to be much more than a hindrance to the fine-tuned machinery of the line. Neither did I jive with the kitchen management, who didn’t understand why I wanted to work on a line if I had no ambitions of being a career chef. After a couple of weeks, I decided to move on, and began scouting for a new culinary home. A kitchen with less time pressure, helmed by a chef who believed in an educational mission. What kind of restaurant would that be?