Stages. Step 1: Show up...
It’s hard to find good help these days, as the old saying goes.
Here in Ottawa, it’s a sentiment that been bugging a lot of chefs recently. So, why is that?
It’s not just about finding a prospective new cook and hiring them, it’s about HOW the course of hiring begins. A successful stage.
The interview process for a cook doesn’t start and end with a sit-down conversation and a review of your CV. It goes far beyond that, but its starting point is the stage. Staging is what many chefs, including myself, consider to be the most crucial part of our interview method. It allows a chef to see how you work and move around our sacred space. Every kitchen, like every chef, demands a certain level of excellence and that comes with a heaping side order of high expectations. Each chef also has a vision and belief as to how their kitchens should run. You can have a great conversation with a chef about your resume, your experiences, and where you see yourself going—unfortunately, that don’t mean shit if you can’t hang with the crew when everyone is in the weeds during service. Ottawa is abundant with remarkable restaurants that any cook SHOULD be ecstatic to have the opportunity to work in.
OK, so stellar restaurants, incredible chefs, and mind-blowing opportunities for young cooks. What the hell is going on here???
In kitchens around the world, genius chefs can demand that young cooks stage for three weeks or more sans pay. Fortunately, staging cooks here aren’t faced with the “You should be so lucky to be working for free and gaining this level of knowledge” speech from the Michelin starred chefs of New York, London and Paris. Now I totally understand having the good fortune to work and learn in those kitchens is rare and awesome and I’m sure there are many young cooks out there that want, and most likely deserve to work in those very restaurants. But it’s no secret that shit doesn’t pay the bills and I would hope that the days of having staff work unpaid for weeks so they can “pay their dues” are quickly coming to an end. Learning to become a great chef without going broke and homeless in the process is very possible. A long and difficult process albeit, but totally attainable. It still begs the questions then, why can’t we get a solid stage in?
We know how it is. We grind each and every day. If you want to make it in this business and be great at it, you have to come into each service excited about food and about hard work. The first real impression you can leave of that kind of attitude is during your stage.
Good advice would be for me to tell you to work fast, work clean and don’t get into anybody’s way, ‘nuff said. But stages are so important to chefs and their cooks alike as well as the future of their kitchens, so I’m going to impart some guidance on you kids out there to help YOU figure it out (damn, I should be charging for this!)
You may think this is crazy to have to say, but there is one step above all else you need to take when you have a stage scheduled;
SHOW THE FUCK UP!
Nope, it’s not as easy as it sounds to get this part down, and I’m not sure whether its nerves or that some people just don’t care, but no shows really suck. Whether people realize it or not, having an extra set of hands in the kitchen goes a really long way. Being down a capable body you thought you’d have going into service is the worst. So, showing up to your stage and on time, or better yet, showing up a half hour early is only going to put in an excellent position for mise en place.
It’s OK not having your own knives, however, it does go a long way. Knives are expensive and it’s a collection that is built over time. On that note, never be ashamed of the knives you do own, just make sure they are sharp. And no matter what your kit looks like, be prepared to have it analysed when you pull them out. If you don’t have a kit, worry not because most kitchens will have a stack of beater knives you can use. And don’t ever use a knife without asking! The last thing you want is to nick a piece off of a cook’s knife without them even knowing you were using it cause that’s only going to lead to a very unpleasant conversation.
The mise en place that’s assigned to you is a test to see how well you can get them done, and to the chef’s liking. When a chef shows you HOW to do it, you had better make sure it’s a mirror of that because that’s the pressure and expectations of this job. It’s a disciplined art form, so acing the mise is a sure way to show that you take it seriously.
Be aware of what’s happening in the kitchen and study your surroundings. This fundamental component of any cook’s job is called Kitchen Awareness. You’ll get a quick tour when you’ve changed into your whites, but once you’ve started your mise, you must keep focused on your tasks while also keeping your head on a swivel. During my own past stages, I’ve made it my first priority to be aware of all the kitchen equipment like pots, inserts and dishes. Notice a cook in the juice? Ask if they need a hand. All they might need is a quick trip to the dish pit for a small pot or six-pan and because of your keen kitchen awareness, knowing where to grab a needed item from quickly, you’ve eliminated the chances of clueless searching and time wasting during service. What is asked of you is delivered in an efficient manner and that cook is satisfied. That shit gets remembered when the chef is asking their crew after service how the stage went.
Ask questions and dive in! Oh, but hold up, control yourself too, you don’t want to be a blabbermouth. Remember this is still a part of the interview process and you’re a guest here. It seems counterproductive, but being too friendly and talking too much off the bat can leave a bad impression. One time a stage kept finishing my chef’s sentences all night long. I felt like Jim Halpert from ‘The Office’ staring off into the camera trying to break through the fourth wall to my fellow cooks! Needless to say, it was awkward for everyone. Ultimately, we are here to get shit done. When the prep list is a mile long, the goal is to be ready for service, not become besties. Ask the questions that are going to benefit you during your stage and try never to assume what the answer will be if you really don’t know.
Well, there you have it. What I consider to be five key tips to a successful stage. If I kept going, this article would be another five pages, but I’ll spare you that…for now. In all seriousness, I wanted to write this because when stage season is upon us and it’s a beautiful time where help, free of charge even for a night, is truly welcome. Chefs and restaurants are constantly looking for great people. Young cooks should be really excited and motivated to obtain and follow through with their stages and getting a chance to work at some of Ottawa’s finest establishments.
As I spend more time talking with chefs around the city, I’m hearing that so many of my colleagues have this problem in their kitchens. Recently even, a chef I was interviewing mentioned that he’s just satisfied when a stage shows up (SEE TIP #1!!!) He counted as many as 3 no-show stages in the last couple months alone. That’s just shit because working in his kitchen would be one hell of an opportunity for any cook.
So, here’s a little message for all the no-shows: Your name is on the resume. This city is quite small, and many of us are friends looking out for each other. If you take nothing else from this humble guide at the very least remember this: Show up to your stages, we remember those who don’t.