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Chefs on Stage

Whether they are visiting chefs, culinary externs, or serious amateurs who want to take culinary expertise to a higher level, stagiaires (French for trainees) work for free. (Yes, free!) Their main objective is to learn, not earn. On-the-job training is the most informative and practical experience a chef can get. A stage (kitchen internship) can be set up in a restaurant two blocks away or in a European kitchen. It can be as short as a one-day trial, or the stage can run part-time for up to a year. For recent culinary grads, it is a great way to build a resume and/or work in a good restaurant under a top-flight chef.
But the stage experience is not just for neophytes. It can be an important training vehicle for seasoned cooks, sous chefs, and even master chefs who want to discover new methods, expand their culinary horizons, or hone their skills. Most chefs have done at least one stage, and many still make time to visit “hot” kitchens for a quick tune-up on the newest trends and techniques. It’s a culinary academy where no chef is too cool for school.

Home Field Advantage

In the corporate world, exchange programs have long been recognized as essential vehicles for cross training. Many private-sector participants are even willing to pay their employees’ full salaries just for the inside experience and connections.
So, what’s in it for the host restaurant and chef? If the resident chef is seen as the “go to” man or woman, new doors of opportunity are sure to open. Hosting stages could be the best way to staff a kitchen. At some point, all chefs face the anxiety of losing cooks and being shorthanded while searching for replacements. A steady flow of stagiaires means a ready supply of potential workers who already know many of the routines.
But there is an important caution. An extern who has been sent by an accredited culinary school often comes complete with an umbrella insurance policy. Someone off the street, however, is an independent contractor and, in the event of an accident, the restaurant and chef could be held accountable.

Making the Connection

For most businesses, an exchange program is set up through a contractual arrangement, but many kitchen stages—especially if they are short-term trials—are set up informally. Some simply could involve a conversation with a chef followed by a phone call or e-mail. Stephanie Banyas, executive administrator for Bobby Flay, receives a steady flow of letters and e-mails from people seeking placements as stagiaires and externs. Each applicant is given the same attention as a prospective cook, with much more weight placed on attitude and enthusiasm than skill.

Working as a volunteer at events and fundraisers or attending master classes can be a great opportunity to network and meet chefs and, in a relaxed environment outside their kitchens, chefs may be more receptive. For the more confident stage seeker, there is a bolder approach. When he was a sous chef at Manhattan’s Porter House, Charlie Brassard would walk into restaurants, speak to the chef, tell him or her who he was, and ask if he could spend a day in the kitchen. He was never turned down.
Surfing the net also can uncover externship opportunities. For example, Allen Susser of Chef Allen’s in Miami posted for an available extern position. Web sites such as chef2chef.net often have information about internships, including a recent listing for interns to help Chef David Gilbert open a new restaurant in Dallas. Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (womenchefs.org) and other professional culinary organizations arrange numerous stages in Europe. Some of these programs either are fully subsidized or charge only for airfare. Many cooking schools also set up local and foreign stages.

Etiquette and Opportunity

Once an extern finds a place to stage, there are certain rules of etiquette to be followed. Offer to do simple, even menial, tasks. Be alert and considerate. Keep an open mind and give your guarded opinion only when asked. Your objective is to learn and not to teach; there are always alternative ways to do things.
Remember, you are always a potential hire, and a two-day visit could turn into a job offer. Whether it’s a full externship or a single observation session, don’t look upon the stage experience as working for free. It is the one part of professional schooling that you don’t have to pay for.
 

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