In recent years, there has been much debate about the idea of internships, particularly the unpaid variety. The concept has always been that a young person (usually a student) would work for free in order to build knowledge and experience. Various other intangible benefits tend to be mentioned as well- “looks good on a resume,” “foot in the door for a paying job,” “building connections/ networking opportunities,” and so on.
In cooking, an unpaid internship is sometimes called “doing a stage” (pronouced ‘staj.’) For a young culinarian, staging can be rewarding, or even life-changing, offering opportunities to learn from experienced chefs, travel, and get a feeling for the kitchen life from another point of view.
No matter what you do, you’ve gotta feed the monkey.
“It’s how we all started back in the day!”
“Everyone starts at the bottom.”
“You should consider yourself lucky you HAVE a job! Lots of unemployed out there, you know!”
Those who support the older, “traditional” way sometimes make mention that the environment is made intentionally cruel and unbearable so that the student will acquire a “thick skin” and will endure the punishment and seek out opportunities to learn on their own, thereby displaying grit, determination, and self-motivation.
Obviously, a student should be endowed with a good sense of humility. It doesn’t matter how well you did in school, or WHERE you went to school- you are NOT too good for washing dishes, mopping floors, and peeling potatoes. In some of the very best kitchens in the world, the ones that crank out people that become the worlds great chefs, the only words a student needs to know are “Oui, Chef!”
This means that student must learn to take and accept criticism. A student must learn that, in a kitchen, they are only as good as what they can produce. They must understand that listening and watching will teach you more than running your mouth.
It means learning to deal with people who may or may not like you.
It means learning the razor-thin line between success and failure, between Pride and Shame.
You don’t have to look far in books or on the internet to find older chefs reminiscing about their days as stagers. There are recurrent themes that sadly tend to fall in to the vein of negative kitchen culture I had described in a previous post– absurdly long hours, drudge work, physical/sexual harassment, hazing, bullying, physical/verbal/emotional abuse, and so on.
Some people defend these practices, insisting it’s “part of the life,” “traditional,” or necessary to “building a thick skin.” There is a notion that you can’t become a great chef unless you have starved, been whipped with towels dipped in hot fat, or had a chef scream in your face and berate you in front of the whole kitchen for screwing up a sauce.
Implicit in this statement, however, is that such opportunities will be available in the first place, and that the student will be able to access them- even if it’s watching and learning how someone else sets up their station, or the grillardin pulling the student aside to show him how to clean and maintain the grill. Successful learning is accomplished only when you have a student willing to learn, and a teacher willing to teach. A boy who spends month after month in a room peeling potatoes will learn little about working in a restaurant, and EVERYTHING about the fastest way to peel a potato.
Go show those potatoes.