Want to work in a high quality professional kitchen? Get ready for a “stage”. Marissa Sertich with valuable tips on how to succeed with it.
By Marissa Sertich
When I graduated with a liberal arts degree, I left with a feeling of accomplishment, mixed with the complete lacking of any tangible skills. Initial job interviews were essentially personality tests and practiced answers to “strengths and weaknesses” questions. All I could do was to use any persuasion skills I’d acquired, put on my only suit, and use my newly acquired industry jargon.
Many of my fellow graduates felt the same and having been cloistered in the same fictitious world of academia, we didn’t know that the world could function free from bureaucracy. It was perhaps one of the most ridiculous charades I’ve ever partaken in. Nothing was based on anything concrete and rejections or acceptances were founded on a phony set of qualifications – like an internship at a fancy marketing firm where you delivered coffees or a false sense of managerial skills because you were on Hall Council for three years.
That’s where the beauty of the kitchen comes in. A kitchen interview often involves what is known as a “stage,” or “trail,” where instead of a sit-down conversation, you spend a day working in a restaurant’s kitchen. There, for about eight (to possibly twelve) hours of free labor you chop and slice things so the Chef can see, first hand, how you operate. This sense of honest and instant gratification was one of the first things I loved about food industry. There is no hiding the absence of skills behind a well-written cover letter. The hiring process is based on actual performance. It is a terrifying and wonderful thing.
Before any stage, I generally feel nauseous and so nervous that I regret having made the appointment to trail in the first place. I think, “Gosh, instead of working for free all day, I could be eating waffles in the comfort of my home.” But, it’s too late by then, and it’s showtime. Deep down, I know that the trailing experience will be worth it in the end. There are new techniques to see, flavors to try and the witnessing of yet another kitchen’s culture and organization.
In the past, I have found that most restaurants are very welcoming to stages. For them, it is an extra set of hands in the kitchen and it is also a great experience for you. Just send human resources or the chef an email with your resume and a short letter about why you’re interested in staging and you are likely to get a response. Many high-end restaurants take stages every weekend, even when they are not hiring.
Before the stage it is important to know what you will need to bring. Some restaurants specify tools to bring or require a specific dress code. Regardless of specifications, always come prepared with side-towels, some sort of kitchen hat, an apron, a Sharpie, a pen and a small notebook. Even though you are in “whites,” or a kitchen uniform, you have been invited into someone else’s kitchen, so you should dress in a fashion that exhibits respect. Treat your uniform like a suit – make sure it is well ironed, your shoes are polished and your appearance is tidy.
Your level of activity during your trail is based on both you and the restaurant. While they probably won’t trust you with very complicated recipes or put you on the line during Friday night service, you will receive more to do based on your performance and enthusiasm. The more efficient you are with whatever mundane chores you are given, the more likely interesting projects will be assigned to you later on – if you finish slicing five deep hotel pans of brioche into tiny cubes, you may be told to complete the exhilarating task of sandwiching 600 mini-macaroons.
One of the many perks of staging, is that there is often free food involved. Not only will you be invited to join in for “family meal,” but also during service, you will probably be given a few free tastes from the menu. I guarantee that working for your supper has never had such lavish results – Nothing makes me feel more appreciated than being handed a free fancy dessert.
While a stage doesn’t necessarily result in being hired, it is never a waste of time. It is a perfect way to stay current in world of food and there is always something to be learned.
Seven Tips for Staging Success:
- Dress for success – You are about to enter a highly professional environment, so come in with your uniform ironed and your shoes shiny.
- Sharpen your knives – If you are required to bring in your own tool, make sure they are clean and sharp.
- Ask questions – This is the best way to learn and also demonstrate that you are interested in what is going on.
- Demonstrate your “sense of urgency” – Even though you may just be peeling carrots, peel those carrots like you mean it! Plus, the more efficient you are with your peeling, the sooner you will be able to take on a new, more exciting task.
- Sometimes just stay out of the way! – If things start to get very busy in the kitchen, ask if you can help somehow, but also avoid being a nuisance. Sometimes kitchens enter “autopilot,” mode where no one will have the time to babysit you, and you may be better off standing back and watching the show.
- Take initiative – When you’re finished with an assigned task, don’t wait to be told your next instructions. Be first to ask what you can work on next.
- Have Fun – Be proud that you’ve pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone and seen something new. With every trail there are things to learn, people to meet and new foods to eat.
Marissa Sertich Velie is a New York based pastry chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She passionately documents her adventures of baking and eating her way through the fascinating (and sometimes nutty) underbelly of the American pie. Velie has a Master's degree in Food Studies from NYU.