6 Stagier

Physically demanding, emotionally taxing, and above all nerve wracking, staging is like a roller coaster of emotions. You either love it or you don’t. Viewed as the culinary equivalent to an army’s physical evaluation – in which soldiers are admitted to defend a country – if you are invited to return for another day, you’re headed in the right direction.

To stage is to undertake voluntary work from a mentoring chef, under the agreement that you will both benefit, or at the very least make the acquaintance of like-minded people. Aiming to learn from the best you’re sure to find yourself completing the most tedious tasks, trusting that it will help advance you to the next stepping stone. Being a stagier doesn’t mean only seeking fancy food. It’s about discovering new experiences, charting new passages to unforeseen opportunities, and building the courage you’ll need to do so. Until recent decades – with the advent of culinary programs ­– this was the primary way to learn to cook. Definitely the number one way to secure a job.

Let me tell you your confidence, or lack there of, is evident from the moment you pick up a knife, peel an onion, or set up your station to pick herbs. Don’t you dare exaggerate your experience, as the chef can read your comfort level with in minuets of starting a task? Watching to see how efficiently you set up your workstation. Do you work clean? Have you found the proper tool for the job? Is it second nature to label products you prepare properly or does he have to tell you? Most importantly, are you focused and keeping your head down while working? Even the most tedious tasks have right and wrong ways of being completed, but in any chef’s kitchen, his way is always right! Finding the fastest route to getting there is half the battle; don’t forgo the proper procedures.

Anyone can become a stagier for a day, week, or even months. However, unless you hold your own there are no guarantees how long you’ll last. After getting a foot in the door, you must prove yourself with the hopes that someone will give you a job. With any luck you’ll keep the line cooks on their toes as they notice your determination, as you ruthlessly chew at their ankles. In this – often times – dog eat dog world we live in, healthy competition is often the key to progression in one’s career and without it someone is sure to steal the promotion you may feel you want or deserve. Even the smallest amount of potential will intrigue a true chef, an asset no résumé will display. Many positives can come from staging, though don’t be surprised if your stupid little mistakes quickly become stories shared during the line cook’s after service drinks.

Efficiency, speed, and cleanliness are products of self-development. Let’s face it, no one should have to show you how to be clean, they’ll only expect you to find the way – and quickly. Being hungry, full of energy, and ambitious to accomplish something cannot be taught, and frankly if you don’t feel it probably isn’t there. These are sought after attributes desired in every new cook. By staging you will know fairly quickly if you have what it takes to make it in kitchens. After all, the stage is expected to screw things up, hence the extra training wheels applied by those around you. It’s about how you learn from your mistakes that makes all the difference. Remaining an energetic blank slate, prepared to soak up knowledge from all sources, will get you far. Look at it as a networking event on steroids, but remember you won’t be able to conceal anything. After reading this book, though, you should be able to navigate a day in any kitchen, gaining the ability to shine in front of prospective employers by understanding the key essential to picking up the tasks at hand.

The mission of a stage or cook is to execute the chef’s vision by way of deliberate and consistent imitation. However, you should always seek to understand the reasons for doing something, for this is the take away knowledge that will make every subsequent cooking experience that much easier. Ensure your investment will pay off by maintaining the highest level of standards, not only for the food you serve but also the training you receive. Demand the best, ask questions, and track your progress.

Repetition leads to mastery. Whether through reading books, attending food seminars, or surrounding yourself with better cooks, it takes years to attain knowledge and understanding of the beast that is hospitality. That said, you should never stay at a restaurant you’ve grown out of. If you’re not learning, you’d better be moving on – unless you are running the place that is – constantly seeking to learn from better and better cooks.

You’ll know you’ve arrived in a professional kitchen by the sight of razor sharp knives – often removing hair in a downward motion as competitive cooks taunt you – meticulously at work in the steady hands of overworked line cooks, who understand how sharp knives make good food. It’s here that pearl white polished plate ware becomes the canvas for kitchen masterpieces, as the paper-thin spotless crystal stemware is for wine. These kitchens boast the freshest ingredients. Rare products are sourced and handled with proficiency and always cooked to perfection. Fresh, will truly take on new meaning, as most things will be prepared daily, starting from scratch every morning.

It’s essential to absorb everything, including the flavors, techniques, systems, organization, and energy flow of the kitchen. With any luck you’ll find yourself in a well-respected kitchen, one where simply observing the methodical service can change the path of your career and shed light on the potential of food. Complete tasks swiftly; you must take note of the best things you see but also the worst. Some of the most important lessons you’ll ever experience are on what not to do. You will, if the determination strikes you, have to abandon expectations of monetary compensation at the moment and realize that this invaluable knowledge, provided by simply being surrounded by better cooks, will make you better even if it only informs you of where your career could go.

I’ll tell you right off the bat, the second biggest mistake you could make is to eat someone’s prepared ingredients off his or her station. The biggest, most inexcusable mistake is using a cook’s knives without asking, much less using them inappropriately! Knives become an extension of the cook’s arm, honed to a razor’s edge, extremely delicate and susceptible to rust if improperly treated. Never do this! Furthermore, a stage is complete when they send you home. Never ask to leave, otherwise you might as well have stayed in your pajamas and not pulled your ass out of bed. Just remember every day in the kitchen is a test. They want to see how hungry you are; do you really want it or are you just there to glance at recipes? It’s up to you. Without a strong work ethic you might as well not even bother!

Remember, staging is not some sort of cult offering that vaguely guarantees some notion of future job security, riches, or even happiness. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You will come to know, and will hear it repeated often times in the heat, that this is not a career you would pick for your loved ones if you had to choose. However, if you are called to the stove by a passion for food, it can be very rewarding and take you endless places.

Somehow, to every diner’s surprise, higher prices for the restaurant often mean lower wages in the kitchen. Of course, the same is not true of servers; that’s another issue entirely. Furthermore, the best of the best restaurants in the world don’t even pay some of their cooks! That’s right. But before you reach for the phone to call the labor board or United Nations, lets peek closer at these so-called slaves. That characterization is true as long as you consider monetary incentives as the only form of compensation. Time spent at a world-renowned restaurant will expose you to an invaluable amount of resources, connections, cutting edge skills, and techniques from which to create your own. Endless amounts of knowledge are passed down, and the intense passion is contagious. Your investment will pay off every time you enter a new kitchen bringing the confidence and assurance of that great experience. Often, these volunteer experiences will leave the stagier quicker, more efficient, and simply better than those around them, instantly transforming them into leaders when they move on. In my mind, finding one loyal stagier today is worth far more than two green cooks joining your team fresh out of culinary school tomorrow.

Think about which vantage point you wish to learn from. Staging instantly and directly engages the uninformed with the stringent and productive business of food preparation. Immediately you’ll be submerged in a new world with its own language of terms, radically unusual tools and ingredients from all over the world. At the same time, it provides perspective on job opportunities and the industry as a whole, opening the doors that lead to the resources found nowhere else. I believe both staging and volunteering nourish like no paid work can. The imagination-stretching experience of traveling, testing your comfort zone and expanding your horizons. Sometimes just learning what can be achieved is inspiring enough to change your outlook completely.

Not sure what direction you want to take your career? Wondering why a certain ingredient goes into a dish? Thinking about traveling but don’t know where to go? Well, ask! A stage is a chance to ask questions from those who know. Inevitably, some of the cooks you’ll encounter will know the same cooking lessons and career choices you’re now facing. They’re sure to shed light on the many paths presented to you, sometimes before you even ask. There will always be a time to pick their brains; otherwise stay out of the way and seem invisible, but never lean. No really never lean at all. Extra time is there to review what you’ve seen and prepare for your next chance to prove your worth.

Every chance you get, take notes, take notes, take notes. Record every step of the recipes they teach you. Take note of rules of the kitchen and important expectations. I can’t stress this enough. I have almost a dozen small tattered note books jammed with everything from recipes to order lists of ingredients. Even though it may seem like a pointless practice to put on a timer for tasks under five minutes, it is imperative to use one at every chance: the number one mistake nervous people make is forgetting to record every instruction and time every non-immediate task. Only eat when instructed to. Remain quiet, speaking only when spoken to. Remember what my chef once told me: opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and yours stinks. Remain humble, because by now it should be common knowledge that nobody cares where you’ve been or what you’ve done, until you earn their respect that is.

As our world becomes ever more competitive and challenging to navigate, culinary ambassadors must carve a new path toward success. This belief that picking a course code out of a college program book, paying the subsequent dues, and showing up to class on time will create a chef; is exactly the type of toxic, short-sighted, and manipulative message that’s been constructed to breed mediocrity! I think, the only thing it ensures is an impractical expectation of the real culinary industry created by those that don’t actually work in it! Too many of these culinary schools are designed to limit the true personal development of individuality and wonderment. It seems our society tries, without fail, to lead us toward success by feeding us through one uninspired and unrealistic education system after another, each one tailored to promote the regurgitation of knowledge and reward excellence in taking tests, nevermind creativity and using your brain to actually think things through.

There’s no doubt in my mind that having young adults in school systems is far better than leaving them to wander the streets. However, I do believe our systems are flawed for those who with to cook for a living. I mean, two years of commitment to culinary education – along with the price tag that accompanies it – would be far better spent at traveling to learn different cuisines in any respected chef’s domain. A chef will teach many more technical skills for both your career and life with in the moment experience, the only way I recommend learning the art of cooking.

I hold the notion that “good chefs cook and great ones teach” close to my soul. Let me clarify: the pinnacle of success in restaurants is a product of that rare ability of a leader to transmit his talents to his protégés with remarkable momentum. The result of this transmission is a machine of unwavering capability, fused together by a dynamic team ready to take on anything. By contrast, the ‘masterminds’ roaming culinary school halls, putting in their 35-hour work weeks with summers off, couldn’t seem to hack it as chefs and turned to “teaching” instead. But wait a second, that’s the primary difference between a cook and a chef, right? The ability to teach? Yes. But the reason chefs are so good at teaching is because it’s their reputation on every single plate! Without that pressure, the stakes aren’t as high. Some – definitely not all – see teaching in schools as an opportunity to relax, or an early retirement, if you will, from the blistering days spent in real kitchens doing real mentoring, I think they look at it as a vacation. I’ll tell you right now, life in the kitchen is far from a vacation; yet, if like me you thrive under pressure and get energized in the face of a challenge the adrenalin rush is sure to draw you in.