So what is ‘a stage’ or ‘staging’? Staging is an unpaid internship when a cook or chef works briefly, for free (or to gain a position), in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. The term originates from the French word ‘stagiaire’ meaning trainee, apprentice or intern. The term can also apply to an individual who wants Front of House experience too.
Nowadays this form of work experience serves two very good purposes: It allows individuals the chance to gain experience in a place that they admire whilst working in another place/studying etc. This gateway experience can often help individuals decide whether it would be something they want to pursue long term. The establishment is able to benefit from some ‘free labour’.
What is considered good practice when you are applying to stage in a restaurant and how do you do it?
Contact restaurants/ food businesses that you like/ admire or could see yourself working in. Try to keep the message snappy and to the point. Between working at The Glasshouse in Kew and La Trompette in Chiswick I knew I needed to brush up my skillset as the pace and level was going to be a step up. I managed to get stages at The Clove Club, L’Autre Pied, Bonnie Gull, St. JOHN and Adam Handling at The Caxton Grill. Calls to the kitchen, Twitter and a straight up email got the job done.
Whilst these were all really worthwhile places to work that offered variety – I really wish I’d pushed myself into a totally different cuisine. If you’ve never worked with a specialised cuisine like Sushi or BBQ for example, I’d really recommend it. As a stagiaire there’s no expectation of your skill level and is a great opportunity to try a curveball!
Some tips to get your foot in the door:
- Do this either via email, its ok if they don’t respond the first time round. No reply is nothing personal, it’s usually due to them being really busy! Don’t hesitate to try emailing more than once
- Approaching the team directly during a non busy period with your contact details and your availability can work quite well. Perhaps visit after lunch service. Most reception teams are happy to put calls through to the kitchen without any questions asked. Check their service times, I found the best time was to call after lunch service and get straight to the point. Be ready with the days you’re available as you might get a yes straight away!
- Be prepared to ask multiple places as a few of them may not reply
- You could either ask for 1 day, or a week. Alternatively 1 day a week for a month etc.
Once you have a stage, what should you do?
- Show up on time! If you can, be early on the first day. Remember this kitchen will be alien to you, it’s going to take a few minutes to get your head round where to change, where all the equipment is and where you’ll be working. Don’t worry if you feel like you’re getting in the way, it takes a while to work out the busiest parts of a kitchen in full flow.
- Wear comfortable shoes, if you have chef shoes wear those. If not trainers with a good grip on the bottom work well
- If you can, find out ahead of your arrival who’ll be in charge of the kitchen on the day – then introduce yourself. Senior chefs are much more likely to make time to chat to you about the business, questions you may have and they’ll be more inclined to keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t get too many menial tasks. The next most important person in the kitchen is the KP, say hello to them too and make sure you know how the pot wash is organised.
- Take a notepad and a pen with you, ask permission before writing recipes/notes. (Most places are usually open and ok with this) Recipes aren’t the only thing you can be learning, especially if you’re new to the industry. Pay attention to the way orders are checked and stored, sections are cleaned down and the way service is run. Every kitchen has its own way of working and it’s all great knowledge to carry with you. Even the smallest way of being more efficient can pay dividends in the future.
- If you have a set of knives take those with you. Make sure they’re sharp! One of the most embarrassing moments for me during a stage was having to ask the Clove Club Sous Chef for a knife as mine just weren’t up the task at hand. Not sure he looked at me the same way after that. If you’re not confident in using a whetstone there are some great shops that you can trust with your equipment. If you’re South London based KATABA in Pop Brixton are great and it’s only a pound an inch. Otherwise Japanese Knife Company have sites across London and usually do an industry discount!
- If you have a chefs jacket/trousers take those or, if you don’t, ask beforehand if they can provide uniform.
- Listen and ask questions if you’re unsure about something (ask all the questions – it’ll help you so much and reduce the risk of error).
And what should you expect?
- You will typically be given menial tasks to start off with, there’s nothing wrong with this. The team needs to informally judge your skill set. Depending on how long you are there will depend on the tasks you get given. Unless it’s a very basic task, repeat the stages of the prep you’ve been given back to the chef who explained it to you. It’ll help you commit it to memory and the team will have faith you’re going to complete it to the best of your ability. It’s also likely to mean you get more interesting tasks next! No one wants to dice and peel all day…
- Observe and absorb as much info as possible!
- Staging is also a great opportunity to ask for some honest feedback from someone you admire. Well given feedback is critical to your development.
- Bear in mind that kitchens (if your work is chef related) are fast paced environments, therefore any quick answers or lack of personal interaction is not usually rude or personally aimed against you!
- Be kind to yourself! As much as it’s a great opportunity to learn, sometimes it’s clear you’re being taken advantage of. If you find yourself podding peas for three days away from the main kitchen – feel free to let them know you won’t be returning…
- If you’re getting a good impression, and think you might be interested in a full-time role, make sure to ask the more junior chefs what it’s like. You’ll get a very honest answer!
For restaurants looking to take on stages:
What should you do and what is expected of you if you are taking on a stagiere?
- Clear and effective communication. Give them timings (start and finish times), notes on uniform and what to bring. This is also good practice for any new employees.
- Introduce them to the team on their first day and give them a point of contact if they need anything (this could be the Head/Sous chef or restaurant/assistant manager).
- Check in with them and ask how their first day was. Remember that sometimes these stagieres can turn into full time staff so good impressions go both ways.
- Make sure they are offered a break in between any 8 hour shift and staff food! Sometimes people who are new to the industry hesitate to ask for a break or food – we were all there once!
- (A gentle note/reminder) The industry needs more staff, it’s our responsibility to improve the conditions so people feel like it’s an appealing industry to be in. Giving off good impressions (authentic ones) couldn’t be more crucial and important.
- Staging is a good gateway for an individual to gain work experience. Therefore if your establishment doesn’t have the capability to take someone on in this capacity that’s also OK!
- Ask for feedback from the stagiere – feedback is a two-way street and you can also learn from this experience.
Now we get to the nitty gritty questions.
Where do we draw the line when it comes to accepting stagieres into businesses? And when does it become exploitation?
Questions to ask yourself.
- Has the individual been helping out for free for an extended period of time?
- Has the help since become work, where the individual is completing tasks in a manner that would typically be paid?
- Is this consensual between the employer and the member of staff? If this is unclear it’s best to have the conversation
- Does your business start to depend on free labour to function?
We need to work collectively to stamp out exploitation in this industry and work towards a place where peoples skills are valued. Staging is quite unique to our industry and when done properly it’s a huge win win for everyone, so let’s make sure no lines are crossed and continue to use staging to help the hospitality industry thrive.