All the Kitchen’s a Stage
In the restaurant world, a stage isn’t a raised platform, but it does involve a performance, of a sort. In fine dining kitchens, stage is pronounced “staahj,” based on the French stagiaire which means trainee or intern. Stages, which are basically a fine dining kitchen’s interns, can often be found prepping vegetables, washing dishes, assisting line cooks, plating food, and learning new techniques in some of the most prestigious kitchens around the world. Famous chefs almost unanimously sing the praises of their time spent staging, but there’s one minor problem: in America, the legality of staging is questionable at best.
Variations on a Stage
It’s important to note that stage can have different meanings. Traditionally, a stage is anywhere from a few days to a few months long, offering chefs a chance to learn new techniques and ways of running a kitchen. In many cases, this type of staging requires traveling to a new city or country. This can be a challenge in an industry notorious for low pay, as travel is not cheap and stagiaires are rarely paid, though some participants receive lodging and one or two meals a day. Some cooks spend months or years saving up for the opportunity to stage in a prestigious restaurant in a distant city for a few weeks. Staging isn’t just for new, inexperienced chefs, either –accomplished, successful chefs take time off to do a stage in kitchens around the world in order to learn new recipes and gain an international perspective.
However, some restaurant owners use the word “stage” a little differently, asking prospective cooks to come in and stage in what is more of a working interview that generally only lasts for a night or two at most. This type of stage can be educational, but is less about the cook learning techniques and more about a potential employer evaluating the cook’s abilities for a job.
The Legal Debate
A long-term stage is a type of internship, a facet of the workforce that has faced significant scrutiny in recent years. The Labor Department has six factors to determine if an unpaid internship is legal, including one that seems to be the sticking point for the foodservice industry: “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.” It’s hard to argue that restaurants don’t benefit from the labor their stagiaires complete – if a stage doesn’t dice those vegetables and sweep the floor, the restaurant owner would have to allot someone else to do it or even hire an additional staff member.
Many argue against the practice of staging on the grounds that some operators use it as free labor without much regard to what stagiaires learn in the process. While in many industries this leads to lawsuits, those rarely come from stagiaires.
Many think a large part of why there has not been much litigation is because chefs so highly value the opportunity to stage and don’t want to risk being blacklisted in the industry if they start demanding pay or bringing lawsuits. Food and lifestyle blog Lucky Peach found in a survey of former stagiaires that 88 percent felt staging improved their kitchen skills and 85 percent found value in the networking connections they made while staging. The value placed on staging by those who have done it, as well as those who need the labor, will perhaps protect restaurants from litigation, but some think a collision with the courts is inevitable.
Opponents of staging criticize what they see as misuse of free labor and argue the practice shuts out low-income cooks looking to break into the higher ranks. Meanwhile, supporters – many of whom have been stagiaires themselves – maintain keeping staging open and legal in other countries has allowed fine dining to flourish far beyond American cuisine, partially because of American chefs who travel to those countries to offer themselves as free labor in exchange for the opportunity to learn. Restaurants like Noma, Mugaritz, and El Bulli, some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, could arguably not have achieved their lofty statuses without stages. So, those who want to see American cuisine reach those heights tend to favor officially making staging legal.
Finding a Stage
If you have a desire to learn and a willingness to work, a stage may be an option for working your way up the ranks of a kitchen. Most stages are brought on board without so much as an interview; having a personal connection to a chef you’d like to stage under helps, but in many cases simply dropping by or giving the chef a call is enough to get you in the door. Make a list of restaurants and chefs you admire or want to learn from, and reach out to each of them to see if they are accepting stages. Because the position is unpaid, it’s important to ask ahead of time if stages are provided with lodging or meals, especially if you’ll travel to a new city to stage. Also, be sure you know how long the restaurant’s stages last, since you’ll need an estimate of how much you’ll need in savings to survive that long without pay.
Once you have a stage scheduled, make sure you have the right tools. Chef pants, a white chef’s jacket, non-slip shoes, and a set of knives are the basics. In most cases, everything else will be provided. Expect long hours and hard work, and be prepared to learn. Industry professionals suggest being humble and enthusiastic about even the most menial tasks, asking questions, and focusing on learning, rather than just adding a bullet point to your resume.