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Obtaining a Stage

THE RESTAURANT FOLDER   / STAFF
THE RESTAURANT FOLDER / STAFF

Many of you who follow this running article have asked me – “how do I live this life of traveling the world?” The answer is simple, I cook everywhere I go, and I don’t seek payment for it. You could generalize that I am a professional stage at this point. The bottom-bitch fucking new guy and to be honest I have never loved the cooking industry more.

I wander into a new city practically ass-over-teakettle. Confused and probably hung over from the wine the night before, I try to settle in seamlessly. Each place I step into is gauged upon a purely intuition basis. Chefs need intuition, period. I have mine in spades.

When I’m in these cities, my time feels unfulfilled and wasted if I am not finding my way into a local kitchen. When I do find the kitchen, I cook alongside the local chefs who throttle the region’s cuisine forward pursuing their standards of excellence. From them I learn, and from me they receive a free stagiaire.

A stage (derived from the French term ‘stagiaire’) is all about working for free with the intention to learn. If you want to be paid you are a ‘trail’. Don’t seek a stage if you aren’t fully prepared to work for free. For free means you must love the long hours, laborious work, and the chance you might see something new that wows you.

Now that we are all clear on what a stage is and its benefits, how do you make one come about? There are few things more important than being able to get your foot in the door of a new kitchen. It’s seriously up there with knife skills, preventing danger zone mishandling, and the phrase “oui, Chef”.

I have employed too many even younger chefs who just didn’t have a fucking idea how to even get into a kitchen. When our working relationship ended, whether subordinate or colleague, I did everything in my power to help them when they needed it.

Knowing the right people is always a great way to get in. As chefs move about, which we’re known to do frequently, the ripple effect of our network vastly broadens. That means don’t be an asshole, work hard and keep a positive attitude – always. You want to be able to reach out later and have old co-workers embrace that you want to come into their new domain. When your friends put their necks out for you to come stage in their new kitchens, work twice as hard and be twice as nice to everyone. You are a direct representation of who they stand for because everything you do reflects upon them.

For hypothetical what the hell sake though, let’s assume you don’t know a person in every town with a restaurant in the world. Likely, there will come a time where you might have to put yourself out there all alone. Fear not, dear reader, the culinary world is not as scary as you might think… as long as you educate yourself.

Here’s how I do it: research, research more, prepare yourself, approach with professionalism, demonstrate confidence, and expect little respect in return. Follow this model and I guarantee you will land a stage or two for every couple you may miss. I say this because I’ve yet to be turned down.

When determining where you want to stage, you need to figure out why. Find a restaurant that you want to learn more about or from. Perhaps you would want to work there. Perhaps they just cook a different style of cuisine than you’re used to. Don’t just stage to stage – have a reason and do your research to determine that reason.

Once you have a restaurant selected, research it inside and out: the menu, the chef, the FOH manager, the history, the reviews, the location and hours. All are important because the next step is to write a letter. The term ‘cover letter’ scares many people. Résumés scare most people, too. For fuck’s sake, just write what you can and make it from the heart. Write a personal letter (aka cover letter) that states who you are, why you want to work for them, and why you are capable to handle yourself in kitchens. Then end it with something respectful and appreciatory.

Now that you have your letter and the restaurant you seek to learn from, go bang on some doors! Clean yourself up however that is for you – whether you have a fresh shave or wear a button up shirt – just don’t look like a sloppy douchebag hack. Walk in to said restaurant, politely ask to speak with Chef Blahblahblah and say you are willing to wait as long as necessary.

Try to be thoughtful and arrive while the restaurant is dead, or better yet, closed. DO NOT arrive during or just before service. This timing should be easily figured out since you researched the restaurant front to back, top to bottom. Eventually someone will come talk with you, even if it isn’t Chef Blahblahblah. If they ask what you want, be clear and cool as a cucumber. You want to work for them as a stagiaire to learn from them and their staff. BOOM! There it is.

I glazed over that you shouldn’t expect respect. You really shouldn’t. You’ve done absolutely jack squat to earn their respect and in some sense have only taken up their precious time thus far. You are not staging to make friends. You are staging to learn. If they will have you, be kind enough to work within their terms and expectations.

However, once you do start working, you are not their slave. You are there to help and do whatever it takes, but have self-respect that you are there of your own free will and with the intention that you should be gaining something (typically of educational value) from the experience.

If they as an establishment can’t do that much, then fuck ‘em. Finish out the day. I repeat, finish out the day! At the end, respectfully explain why you don’t wish to come back anymore, and then don’t. Be aware that they may know your current employer or they may know a future employer or another restaurant you seek to stage in later. Don’t burn the bridge because word and opinions spread. The culinary world is smaller than you may realize. It’s not wrong to have self-respect that you can make the decision to use your time as you please. Hopefully nothing close to this will be the case for you.

Based on common sense, they’ll likely be happy to have you (free labor) there. They will show you some things and most likely ask a lot of you. They’re expecting you to work as if you are a paid employee. You should grind with as hard a work ethic as if you were a leader of their kitchen staff. The more tasks you accomplish, the more you will see during your stage. It’s not a hard science to comprehend, dummy.

The rest is up to you and who you are inside as an aspiring chef. The culinary world is a unique place but it doesn’t take too much to figure out. I’ve said my piece. Good luck, keep forging onward and enjoying new kitchens!

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Jack Hott

Jack Hott has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. Along the way he’s flipped burgers, tossed pizzas and spilled a lot of wine on white table cloths.

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