Paying Your Dues

     Good evening, friends and neighbors!

     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.

     Although staging still happens in parts of America and Europe, today’s economic realties sadly make it impractical for most students, or even chefs who would host them. In some cases, a staging student might be paid in room and board, or even stay for a while under the chef’s roof. Unfortunately, everyone has bills to pay, the need to support themselves, and places that will offer room and board for labor are very much the exception, not the rule. 

     No matter what you do, you’ve gotta feed the monkey.

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“Did that ever occur to you, dude?…Sir?…”

Despite all this, there are those who keep offering low/non-paying kitchen jobs in exchange for experience and a few lines on a resume CV. There is a litany that usually accompanies these offers as well:

“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!”


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Yeah, no one likes that last one…

     What it does NOT mean is accepting brutality, cruelty, and exploitation.

     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.

     But there is a big difference between building someone up and crushing their soul.

     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.

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Sometimes, but not always, in a montage with epic music playing.

     These statements ARE technically true, but there are good reasons to hesitate when deciding whether or not (and where) to do a stage.

        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.

     I agree that the ability to tolerate and endure unpleasant tasks is an absolute necessity. I also agree that self-motivation, eagerness to learn, and determination are vital, and demonstrate the unconquerable spirit needed to lead and manage well. 

     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.

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So…Many… Potatoes…

     If you are in a position where you can afford to do a stage or internship, find someone you admire and work under them. Failing that, find a place making a cuisine you love and work there. Don’t settle for just anyone that’ll offer you “experience.” If you really want to learn something, you can acquire experience virtually anywhere. Make it worth your time and effort- the first steps on the road are tough already. You don’t need to make them tough, long, and fruitless on top of it.

Go show those potatoes.



Stay Classy,

One thought on “Paying Your Dues

  1. Good post – critical but not angry or accusatory. I was actually listening to a debate about colleges today, and this post made me wonder: The “old world” way of starting off in the culinary world was built around staging, right? So: 1. When did culinary school become a “Thing?” And 2. Could it be argued that culinary school effectively replaces the stage in some ways?

    I would think a good culinary program would give you experience in various kitchen (and front-of-house) scenarios, giving you a basic understanding of all aspects of working in a restaurant; teach you the basics of peeling potatoes, dicing onions, and using common appliances; and demand excellence in the way a real restaurant would. Okay, maybe that last one is problematic (I get the feeling that in general, people work harder at something they’re being paid to do, rather than something they’re payING to do), but if culinary school was like that, could staging (particularly the model of working for no pay) be phased out of the process altogether? Or should staging be brought back in full force, replacing culinary school with on-the-spot experience? Is there a happy medium for which the culinary world could strive?

    There is still value in having to build yourself up on the actual job, I agree. Not just for “character building,” but also to gain perspective on oneself and one’s place in the world. But being paid is kind of necessary these days.

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