All the Restaurant’s a Stage
Why the stagiaire—a tradition in many a pro kitchen—matters in a volatile labor market. By Ruth Tobias
“A stagiaire, or stage (pronounced “staahj”) for short,is an unpaid kitchen intern.”—Eater
At a time when the legitimacy of the corporate internship is being challenged in both actual courts and those of public opinion as a free-labor racket, it’s interesting that the restaurant stage has yet to face quite the same blanket scrutiny—especially given the beating the restaurant industry has taken in the media with respect to its overall employment practices in recent years. Perhaps that’s because it is, at its best, the hospitality equivalent of a cultural exchange program; while young aspirants to chefdom represent the majority of stagiaires, the fact that seasoned pros and even driven amateurs also do stages is indicative of its enrichment value for all parties involved.
What are those mutual benefits—and what are the risks? How might the process vary from operation to operation? How has the pandemic impacted it? We asked a few local restaurateurs for their insights.
Of course, stages regularly function as auditions for potential hires. At Boulder fine-dining institution Flagstaff House, explains GM and partner Adam Monette, “It’s a vetting process. We stage anyone, especially if they’re looking for one of our more executive culinary positions; that’s an opportunity for us to see, ‘OK, what are you capable of doing?’ At that stage, you’ll get to understand our kitchen, you’ll learn from our chefs, you’ll understand our cuisine, you’ll see our plating, you’ll get to know the team.” Joining the staff at family meal is “a good opportunity for [candidates] to bond” before they’re assigned to a crew member based on their skills and interests: “Some might start in the pastry department, we might have some who are working the fish station, someone on the cold station being garde manger. . . . And then they get right to it: ‘These are the products we’re creating, this is what’s on our prep list today, you’re going to help me make that, and we’re going to instruct as best we can.’ But we’re also watching for timing and efficiencies, we’re watching for knife cuts, we’re watching for basic cooking process, and making sure they’re up to speed.”
“It’s a vetting process. We stage anyone, especially if they’re looking for one of our more executive culinary positions.”
—Adam Monette, Flagstaff House
That said, attitude can be as important as aptitude: “We’re really looking for a personality fit as well,” says Linda Hampsten Fox, chef-owner of the Bindery, an all-day bakery, cafe, and restaurant in Denver. “We have a kitchen that’s very open and exposed. Guests [often] comment while sitting at the bar about how calm the kitchen looks. We may be packed and there’s probably all this insanity going on, but everyone knows what they’re doing and how to work together, and we all have a similar temperament.” In fact, the pandemic, with its attendant labor shortage, may have made the right mindset all the more critical: “Certainly [COVID] did create this change in the work pool, and consequently we found ourselves having fewer people with certain skill sets, being like, ‘Well, we can teach you everything that we need to; if you’re really interested in learning, we can do this.’”
Meanwhile, a much smaller operation like Denver chef’s counter Beckon may not even require action from its stagiaires, who are just as likely to be front-of-house candidates. After all, says Allison Anderson, director of experience, “The use of the stage in a restaurant as small as ours can honestly sometimes complicate things or make things slightly more difficult than it would be in a Noma-sized restaurant . . . where there’s 70 people working in the kitchen and there’s something for everyone to do and if they screw something up it doesn’t affect service.” Rather, “Depending on how comfortable they are in our kind of environment, they may just be observing . . . hanging out with the expo and hanging out with the chefs and chatting to us about service.” It’s only “if they have experience in fine dining . . . [that] we’ll incorporate them into service and let them do what they feel comfortable doing. And that’s usually a pretty good way to see if the restaurant is a good fit for both parties.”
Beyond the prospect of immediate employment, stages serve as learning and growth opportunities. Typically these may last a few days or even weeks, but Anderson recalls how a single-day stint at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City influenced her outlook. Though she was there strictly to observe—as she admits, “I was afraid to talk; I was like, ‘I hope they don’t ask me to do anything because I’m out of my league here’”—what she saw left her in awe. “All of the stations and all of the hands . . . and all of the plates stacked underneath one plate that brought your one little course to you—there’s like 18 plates underneath that plate. The expo—he’s like air traffic control, he’s like a sniper. He cannot fuck up. If you see it, he’s just . . . living in the moment. Every plate is his primary focus.” The motivating takeaway was, “Never did they say, ‘Eh, maybe we’ll just kind of phone it in today.’ Every day they have to show up because they’re on one of the biggest stages in the world.”
“Even [for] a very experienced chef, jumping into another kitchen in another place, another culture, and really seeing that wide spectrum of food and seeing how people are doing things—that inspiration is an ongoing process.”
—Linda Hampsten Fox, the Bindery
Speaking of motivation: Of Hampsten Fox’s time staging in Europe, she says, “I still have notebooks full of things that I learned there—in particular in Italy, [when I was] learning how to make pasta in Tuscany and different dishes on the island of Elba [and discovering] the history of the food, the stories, the backgrounds—the things that really get you excited.” While such experiences are “awesome for young chefs,” she adds, “even [for] a very experienced chef, jumping into another kitchen in another place, another culture, and really seeing that wide spectrum of food and seeing how people are doing things—that inspiration is an ongoing process.”
And that process goes beyond honing one’s own cooking skills, says Flagstaff House executive chef Chris Royster. “What it showed me was different ways to manage a kitchen: different approaches for station set-up or the organization of the ingredients I have in front of me or even techniques, like . . . parting out a whole bird of some sort, [allowing me to] see how someone might do it different from me. . . . To be able to see how kitchens are run, [doing] stages really helped me evolve not just as a chef but as a manager.”
The Fine Print
Granted, in those cases, what’s in it for the restaurant is a bit more intangible. While Royster describes educational stages as “a trade back and forth throughout the industry—it’s something that you do to help one another,” Anderson points out, “You have to be discerning about the people that you do allow to be around your team and to step into your kitchen [or] onto your floor and to be around your guests.” Above all, in the midst of a public health crisis, “Since [Beckon is] so small, and losing more than one of us at any given time can be very detrimental to everyone’s experience . . . we can’t just have randoms coming in and potentially infecting the whole staff.” Trust in general is a sticking point, she adds, “because I feel like a lot of people can come in and they can take your trade secrets or they can get their arm stuck in the mixer, and then all of a sudden you have this liability that you weren’t planning on. So we have a stage waiver that we borrowed from [Anderson’s former employer,] Frasca, because I think it’s extremely important that everybody is on the same page about what that stage means to protect your business and to protect the person coming in.”
“We’re all trying to up our game, and if they can learn something and start creating a better dish at another restaurant, well, that’s going to light a fire under our butts and make us do the same.”
In Monette’s eyes, though, there’s something to be said for the potential competition. “Yeah, it’s somewhat of an outreach, and maybe that person’s going to go back to where they live or where they’re working right now and say, ‘Hey, I picked up these tricks.’ [But] we’re all trying to up our game, and if they can learn something and start creating a better dish at another restaurant, well, that’s going to light a fire under our butts and make us do the same.”
And they may even come back to collaborate. “We had somebody come in for just a weekend not too long ago and stage with us in pastry,” says Royster. “She had worked for me five years ago. She had traveled and worked all over the place for the last couple years and was coming back through and wanted to say hi, work in the kitchen . . . and just talk about different ideas. So it’s also a way to reconnect and trade information and talk about what she’s been doing versus what I’ve been doing here and see how that might play off of each other.”
In that sense, you might say that for those truly dedicated to honing their craft, all the world’s a stage.
Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to firstname.lastname@example.org.