So… you are a middle manager in charge of filing reports in triplicate, but you are a good home cook, watch Top Chef and read Lucky Peach, and secretly fantasize about giving up your day job to work in a kitchen. You probably know enough to know that the restaurant world has a place for people like you, and that is called a stage (in French, so prounced stahzh), but you have no idea how to ask for one, or, if accepted what to expect when you get there.
I’ve staged at a few restaurants and written about it, so people often ask me for advice on the subject. For some reason it never occurred to me until now to write up all of my advice into a post. So here we go.
Oh, and all of this advice is equally applicable if you are a culinary school student about to go on your first externship.
Where to Stage
High end, fine dining restaurants often have stages on a constant basis. They look at them as free, if inefficient labor, and have a system set up for dealing with them, so they may be your best choice. If you ask to stage at Denny’s you might get some funny looks. Mid-level restaurants may be less used to having stages, but they also could provide a more personal experience and might be slightly less intimidating.
How to Arrange A Stage
The very best way to arrange a stage is if you have, or can establish, some sort of personal connection with the chef. You may already have a friend who knows them or knows an employee. If possible, eat at the restaurant you have in mind and maybe you can meet the chef then. Many chefs use twitter, facebook, or maintain a blog, so social media can be a way to make some initial contact. Failing all of that, you can send a cold email or letter. Don’t try to call a chef, at least not of any major restaurant. It might be ok with a hometown bistro, but definitely not during service hours!
Once you’ve made contact, you should just ask them very directly if you can stage. They may want to know what your goals are and a little about your experience level, if any. Be honest. If you claim to have knife skills like Morimoto, you better be able to back that up or you are going to look like an idiot about 6 minutes after you arrive.
You’ll need to establish how long the stage is for. I’ve done them for as little as 3 days and as long as 4 months. There is a special type of stage, called a trail, which is usually for a single day, and is meant as a direct job interview for a specific position, but that probably doesn’t apply to your circumstances. Be sure and find out what time you should arrive on the appointed day, and if you haven’t seen the cooks, ask what the clothing requirements are. Chefs are extremely busy people, you don’t want to have to contact them 5 more times before you start, so be sure to get all of your essential questions out of the way in one shot.
How To Prepare
Congratulations! You’ve convinced chef to give you a chance. You are expected to arrive next Tuesday at 2 PM. What should you do to get ready?
First of all, make sure you have the necessary gear. For clothing, if you haven’t heard otherwise, you should have black chef pants, a t-shirt, and a white chef’s jacket. Definitely get your name embroidered on the jacket, together with a logo and your favorite catchphrase. No. All of these things can be had at a restaurant supply store or from the web. If you are working multiple days in a row, you’ll need more than one set so you don’t have to go home exhausted and immediately do laundry. An apron and towels will be provided to you when you arrive.
Unless you are bald, you’ll also need a way to cover your hair. And you’ll need comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. I’m partial to black Crocs, the kind with no holes on top. But you might prefer clogs or boots for the additional protection. It is best to have shoes you can wipe off. Tennis shoes will get gross and stay gross.
You’ll also need knives. At a minimum, you’ll want an 8″ chef’s knife, a paring knife, a serrated bread knife, a steel, and a vegetable peeler. You’ll feel best if you put them in a knife bag that you can also pick up at the restaurant supply, but if you don’t mind looking like a dork I suppose you can roll them up in a towel, tie a Jethro rope around it and throw ’em in a cloth sack. I’d go with the knife kit myself. Your knives better be sharp as a razor because you will probably cut more vegetables than you have ever seen in your life. And practice your knife skills. Go buy a ten pound sack of onions and another of potatoes and makes sure you can quickly, neatly, and uniformly slice, dice, mince, julienne, etc.
Working in restaurants is hard, physical, exhausting labor. So if you really are a desk jockey, you might want to get some exercise.
Finally, do lots of reading. Don’t waste your time memorizing stuff like all of the variants of the mother sauces. Chef is not going to shout “Hey, stage, quick, whip me up a batch of Aomard à l’Anglaise.” What you should read about is life in the kitchen. For starters, read everything Shuna has written on the subject. Start here and then branch out to the rest of her site. Then, read some of these other great memoirs by the likes of Jaques Pepin, Bill Buford, Ruhlman, Daniel Boulud, Karen and Andrew, Grant Achatz, and, sure, Bourdain.
You aren’t reading these books because your experience in your first week of staging will be anything like what these folks have done, but because they will inspire you, and because they give you some sense of what it will feel like and what is expected of you. But do keep in mind, many of these books are sensationalized and/or are from a different time, when more chefs were screamers and pot throwers, and more cooks shot smack and bumped uglies with the waitstaff in the storage room. There are still pirate-ship operations out there, but most kitchens these days are a lot more calm and professional. Still, you can learn plenty by reading them.
What to Expect When You Arrive
The day has arrived. Great. You can show up with your uniform on, about 5-10 minutes early, or in street clothes but with your uniform ready to go, about 15 minutes early. I prefer to be already dressed. Go to the back door. Open it, step confidently in, and say to the first person you see “Hi, I’m Alfonso. I’m scheduled to stage today.” They will know what to do, which, depending on the kitchen, is to deliver you to the chef, sous chef, or lead at some station (probably garde manger – cold appetizers and salads.)
Don’t expect a lot of small talk. The person you are being delivered to may well be slightly annoyed. They know how to work their station like the back of their hand, and they have a prep list that has 20 items on it that need to be ready for service. Here is what is running through their mind when Chef tells them they have a stage at their station for the day: “F**k me. Ok, let me think about what I can have them do that (1) they can’t screw up (2) if they do screw up, I can recover (3) will get them out of my hair for awhile and (4) maybe actually saves me a little time.”
Now I know that sounds negative. And maybe they won’t feel that way, particularly if they have their station well in hand, so you might be like an amusing monkey to them instead of an annoyance. But assume the worst case. Your goal is to get past this perception, and we’ll discuss how in the next section. But for now, what they are probably going to do is show you where to get your apron and a side towel, set you up with a cutting board next to them, and give you something very basic to do, like peel and rough-chop vegetables that are going to get pureed, or pick herb leafs off their stems. They might ask “where are you coming to us from?”, i.e. what other restaurants have you worked at? This is an important question, because if you’ve worked at Le Bernadin or noma, you get 1736 respect points, and expectations will be totally different. But if you are reading this post, the answer is probably “nowhere, this is my first stage.” Just be honest!
How to Have A Great Stage
Enough with the warmup. You are in the door, you are at your cutting board with your sharp-ass knives. You are coring and gutting 3 cases of tomatoes. Now what?
Now your goal is to demonstrate that you can be a net plus in the kitchen, so that by later in your stage you’ll be allowed to do more interesting things and learn as much as possible. How can you earn a modicum of respect?
Be a hard worker. Do the project given to you, working as quickly and cleanly as possible, and do a great job of it. Then label and put away your project (asking if you aren’t sure where it goes), clean up your area, put all your dirty stuff in the dish pit, and ask what you can do next. No leaning. If someone is chatting with you, keep your hands moving. If for some reason you don’t have something to do, maybe because your supervisor is temporarily tied up, ask other folks if there is something you can help with, or find something to clean. This is the number one source of respect available to you. If you are working hard and trying to contribute, people will like you fine.
You are going to have to ask questions just to complete what seem like the simplest tasks. That is ok – it is much better to ask than to waste a lot of time or do a project wrong and have to start over. You should make it your business not to have to ask the same question twice. So really pay attention to the answer, and if you don’t understand it, ask for clarification right away. For any kind of vegetable prep or cutting, if you have any doubt at all, ask for a demonstration. Just say “can you show me how you want that done?” Then leave the example piece in a corner of your cutting board so that you can reference it later.
Understand the different phases of a restaurant day: prep, service, and cleanup. This can vary a little bit depending on whether a place only does dinner or also has breakfast or lunch. But basically, there are several hours where components for dishes are being prepared and put away. During this phase, you can help a lot even on your first day. Then about an hour or more before service, there will usually be a brief family meal. Every restaurant does this a little different so pay attention and follow everyone else’s lead. But generally the ethos is to eat quickly and get back to work.
Next it is time to set up for service. Each station gets all of their mise en place out, hopefully tastes all of it, double checks their backups, and gets ready for the first ticket. Then service starts, and your role changes. In some restaurants, especially in the first day or two, you might not be allowed to do anything but watch. Or maybe you’ll be sent in to the walk-in to find backups or things that have to be re-prepped on the fly. In others, you might be given one simple dish to plate up repeatedly. In any event, stay out of the way of the professionals, do what you are asked, and don’t ask questions when they have a long row of tickets in front of them.
Finally, towards the end of the night, cleanup starts, usually before the last tickets are done. Every restaurant and every station has a whole list of things to do. Mise en place has to be broken down, wrapped up, labeled and stored. Hotel pans and tools have to go to the dish pit. All surfaces have to be wiped down with hot soapy water and dried. Mats get washed. Cleaned utensils get put away. You aren’t going to know what to do. Don’t even think about leaving. You stay, without asking when you’ll be done, until your station lead sends you home. Just like prep time, you ask “what can I do next?”, and then you do the heck out of it. After a night or two, if you are paying attention you’ll have a pretty good idea of how to contribute during this time without having to ask.
Whatever you do, your attitude should be one of humility. Even if you think you know a better way to do something, I’d advise against suggesting it in the first day or two. Just do what you are asked, and maybe after you’ve established some rapport with your coworkers you’ll sense whether it would be ok to put forth your idea. Also, keep in mind that cooks make very little money and therefore usually haven’t eaten at many great restaurants or traveled far and wide. If you happen to be well heeled and have had some of these experiences, it is fine to mention it if they come up, but don’t flaunt it.
Some Specific Smaller Tips
Needless to say, I hope, your cell phone should be off. If you absolutely must have it on because you have young kids or a grandparent in the hospital or something, put it in vibrate mode and tell anyone who might call or text you to leave you alone unless it is an emergency.
Learn to say “behind you”, “hot behind”, “sharp behind”, “corner”, “oven open”, etc – and do it every time. Restaurant kitchens are crowded places where people are moving fast with smoking hot sheet pans and razor-sharp knives. It is a matter of both safety and respect to let each other know where the hazards are.
Be nice to the folks in the dish pit. They are the backbone of a kitchen and often some of the most valuable employees. Learn where they want stuff stacked, and which things (typically anything sharp) you wash yourself.
Pay attention to how each person in the kitchen is addressed, and learn everyone’s name. When in doubt, start with “yes chef” to anything the chef says to you.
If for some reason you get chewed out, so be it. Accept the criticism, say “yes chef”, correct the mistake, and move on. Don’t justify, argue or even explain unless specifically asked. No crying or pouting.
Although kitchens are more professional than in the past, there is usually still a certain amount of, um, colorful teasing, practical jokes, etc. If you are easily offended, this probably isn’t the right line of work for you. It probably won’t be directed at you unless you are being a jackass, but you’ll hear plenty, and if you are there long enough, you can join in.
If you get cut or burned, there is a medical kit. Ask where it is, use it, cover the damage with a bandaid and glove and get back to work.
Hygiene is essential. Wash your hands well and frequently, at least a few times during a shift and anytime you handle anything messy. When you go to the restroom, leave your apron and towel outside. Wear gloves whenever you are handling any product that won’t be cooked before service.
The Bottom Line
I’m not saying any of this to scare you off staging. I’ve had some of the best, most satisfying days of my life in restaurant kitchens.
Like everything in life, you’ll get out of a stage what you put into it. Put your head down, work hard, don’t whine or second-guess, be a team player, help out where you can, and you’ll earn respect. You’ll also learn a lot. Most importantly, you will learn whether you have the stamina and can develop the skills to work in a professional kitchen, and whether you enjoy it. If you follow these guidelines, before long you’ll be given more responsibility and have a real sense of contributing in the kitchen.
Don’t be afraid to stage in more than one place. Every kitchen you spend time in will teach you something different. In one, you’ll learn speed. In another, precision. In a third, you might see techniques you didn’t even know were possible. A fourth chef might have a phenomenal palate, and a fifth might be a screamer that teaches you what kind of kitchen to get the hell out of.
I hope this is helpful. If you’ve read this and still have questions, please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer. If you have staged in kitchens or work in them full time, and think I’ve got something wrong or left something out, same goes – please leave a comment!