A Brief Review of the Long-Standing Tradition of Performing a Kitchen Stage to Advance in the Culinary Industry
Since the dawn of time, many chef-aspiring culinary newbies have undertaken the laborious journey known as the kitchen stage.
Those who rise through the arduous tasks and tests do so with the promise of becoming knife-slinging culinary champions.
Okay, so staging hasn’t really been around since the dawn of time, but it sure feels like it.
The practice has been around for centuries, and today, staging is so normalized that many folks do it without questioning the history or legality (more on that later).
Of course, there is a reason our industry has held this long-standing tradition. Culinary arts is a trade skill that requires hands-on learning to master.
Staging is a valuable way for those looking to break into their career to gain that interactive education and network along the way. It also allows employers to test potential hires before bringing them on full-time.
So, if you’ve ever wondered why we stage, how it started, and where it’s going—you’re in the right place.
The Origins of the Kitchen Stage
Looking through pages upon pages of Google search results, you’ll find many articles on obtaining a stage, but there isn’t much information about the origins of this tradition.
We know the term stage (pronounced staj) comes from the French word “stagiaire,” which translates to trainee, intern, or apprentice. According to one source, the recorded use of the term le/la stagiaire began in the 1800s—which coincides with the height of haute cuisine in the French culinary arts and a time when culinary apprenticeships grew in popularity.
Of course, there’s a whole history behind trade apprenticeships and guilds that goes back even further, but for the sake of brevity, we’re just going as far back as the Renaissance.
During this time, before the peak of haute cuisine, chefs and cooks were transitioning from working for royalty to working at inns and hotels. As the hospitality industry was starting to take form, training under someone who had already mastered the craft was a fairly common practice. Without formal culinary programs or other trade schools, an apprenticeship was the only way to learn a trade.
Typically, apprenticeships weren’t paid—though master craftsmen would offer apprentices food, boarding, clothing, and moral welfare.
While there isn’t a ton of solid information online about the kitchen or restaurant stage precisely—we can piece together that it stems back to education.
The Stagiarie Turns Externship Turns Working Interview
By the beginning of the 20th century, a career in the culinary arts was professionalized enough that the US and Europe started seeing their first culinary schools—including Le Cordon Bleu and The Boston Cooking School.
Finally, anyone could learn the trade through a classroom structure. However, many culinary programs adopted the apprenticeship process because hands-on learning was still essential.
Culinary schools typically require students to participate in an externship by working in a professional kitchen for class credit.
While this is entirely its own thing—it’s still related to apprenticeship and staging. An externship is unpaid training to gain real-life experience, develop skills, and network for a potential job.
Since the culinary industry began, staging has proven a valuable tradition for teaching and employing new professionals. It’s no wonder it’s stuck in our industry throughout the centuries.
Today, employers have extended the stage from the back of house to the front of house and use it as a trial before hire opportunity.
In this way, staging has become more of a working interview than an apprenticeship opportunity. Yet, many cooks still seek opportunities to stage in renowned restaurants—seeing it as a valuable opportunity.
Modern Legalities Around Staging in Restaurants
Now, the legality of staging is a bit obscure.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law regulating minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards in the private sector, requires all employees of “for-profit” businesses to be paid for time worked.
But! According to the Federal Department of Labor (DOL), “Interns and students, however, may not be ‘employees’ under the FLSA—in which case the FLSA does not require compensation for their work.”
Things get fishy here. You might think a stage seems like an intern, yet simply calling someone an intern doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay them.
If taken to court, it may be decided that someone you claimed was a student or intern is an employee under the FLSA based on seven guidelines of the “primary beneficiary test.”
This test is used to help courts determine who benefited the most in the relations between the employer and the intern or student.
According to the DOL, courts describe the primary beneficiary test as “flexible,” meaning that no single factor is determinative. Each case is unique, and decisions are up to the judge or court’s discretion.
The “primary beneficiary test” considers:
1. The extent to which the employer and intern understand that compensation is not expected, including financial benefits to the employer from having an intern.
2. Whether the internship provides training similar to what would be given in an educational environment.
3. If the internship is connected to an academic program providing integrated coursework or academic credit.
4. Whether the internship corresponds to the academic calendar and the intern’s academic commitments.
5. Whether the duration of the internship fits within the period in which the internship provides beneficial learning.
6. If the internship displaces the work of paid employees.
7. The extent to which the intern and employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the end.
Most of these qualities suggest that if your stage isn’t closely tied to a formal academic program, your free staging practice is likely a form of wage theft and violating the FLSA.
To make things even more confusing, each state has its own Department of Labor with its own set of rules (although most agree with the FLSA).
So, unless you have the money to get a good lawyer or HR department to ensure that you’re within compliance when not paying a stagiaire for their time—it just doesn’t seem worth the risk.
The Future of the Kitchen Stagairie
Sure, if you look up the definition of a stage, it will say “unpaid,”—but that’s simply because the word is centuries old, and at one point in time, it probably was legal not to pay for a stage.
It’s not necessarily the case today; the legalities around not paying someone are too slippery to risk.
As our industry moves into the future, it’s in the best interests of both parties if an employer pays for their stages and working interviews.
A safe and easy way to stay compliant without having to organize your own paid stage program is to use Poached Shifts.
Poached Shifts gives employers the flexibility to book skilled freelance culinary and hospitality professionals for whatever staffing needs—whether bringing in extra hands temporarily or looking to hire someone full-time.
Workers also benefit in that they can gain experience, network, and potentially land a job—just like they would with a stage.
The difference is with Poached Shifts, everything is organized and managed through Poached, so you don’t have to worry about it.
We handle payment between the employer and the worker through our software, ensuring workers get paid quickly and creating a paper trail for both parties.
Additionally, workers are covered by our occupational insurance, so both employers and workers don’t have to hassle with figuring out worker’s compensation costs.
If you’re ready to get with the times and start paying or getting paid for your stages, check out Poached Shifts to see if it’s a good fit. You can always reach out to email@example.com to learn how Poached Shifts can fit your specific needs.