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If someone asked you to work for them for free for nine months, what would you say? Nothing that is printable in a respectable publication like this one perhaps. What if it was a three-Michelin-star restaurant - perhaps you might think differently? Whatever your answer, thousands of chefs every year are clambering over each other to do just that – spend months of their lives working long hours in hot kitchens for no money and no benefits except to their experience and their CV. The phenomenon is of course called staging and, with top restaurants like Noma and Mugaritz receiving between 400 and 700 stage applications a month and employing between 15 and 23 stagiaires in the kitchen at any one time, it is becoming increasingly popular with aspiring chefs and top restaurants alike. With so many chefs wanting to do it, The Staff Canteen decided to provide a helpful guide…
How can I bag that dream stage?
For most places it really is just as simple as getting in touch and asking; the usual method being to send an email with attached CV, but check the restaurant’s website first to see if there is an online application form.
Mark Birchall is the head chef of Simon Rogan’s two-Michelin star L’Enclume. He has seen both sides of the staging coin, both as an employer and having staged himself at the world’s best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca. From an employer’s point of view Mark says: “First of all send a literate email with a CV attached – the amount of applications we get that don’t have a CV attached is incredible; also the number addressed ‘Dear sir or madam’ – make the effort to find out the chef’s name; make the email personal instead of making it obvious that this is a generic email sent out to 30 other restaurants.”
It may be as simple as dropping the restaurant a line but with hundreds of stage applications a month and waiting lists of several months at the top restaurants (see ‘staging fact file’ below) the initial contact is the easy part: you will need tenacity, perseverance and most of all, patience to secure that stage. Paola Carlini is a sales manager and development chef for suppliers, Wild Harvest. She managed to get a six-month stage at El Celler de Can Roca, where she spent most of her time in the pastry section working directly with legendary pastry chef, Jordi Roca, an experience of a lifetime for any chef, but one that she had to work hard for.
“I called up, “says Paola. “ I explained what experience I had and what I had studied and they put me on the waiting list. After that, I probably became one of the most annoying stagiaires that ever went there, as I was calling every other week to see if there were any vacancies. After three months of waiting, I got a place, but only starting five months later! It was a long wait, but it was definitely worth it.”
Oliver Stephens, Head chef of the Isle of Wight’s Priory Bay Hotel, has a similar tale of how he managed to secure a stage at Pascal Barbot’s three-star Paris restaurant, L’Astrance. “About once every month for six months I’d turn up at the door,” says Oliver, “and every time I turned up, I spoke better French, until finally Pascal said, ‘Well I’d better give you a job then.’”
Of course sometimes it’s better to box clever than to box hard, and contacts can certainly be a good way to sneak through doors while everyone else is trying to batter them down; after all, why spend six months travelling to Denmark every week to knock on the door of Noma, when your sous chef is best friends with René Redzepi? As Oliver Stephens says: “Make the most of the contacts you have – if you’re working for someone who worked there or if you know a friend of a friend, use them because it does help.”
Ernst van Zyl is head chef at Etrop Grange Hotel in Manchester. He has staged at The Fat Duck, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and Noma. Initially turned down by The Fat Duck, Ernst found that the contacts option worked for him, this time in the shape of HR departments. When he moved to Etrop Grange and discovered that his human resources manager worked for the ‘Ten out of Ten’ hospitality group, he asked her to arrange a stage with The Fat Duck’s HR department, a move which secured him an offer of a place the very next day. As Ernst says: “Use your HR department – that’s what they deal with at the end of the day so they know what they’re doing and they know people from other HR departments who can help.”
If all else fails, why not use Oliver Stephen’s approach and just turn up on the doorstep? They can only tell you to go away. It worked for Oliver at L’Astrance and also doing day stages at Royal Hospital Road and Pied á Terre – both places where he turned up in the early morning and asked to join the kitchen for the day. A word of warning though – times have changed a great deal in the last half-a-dozen years; red tape and health and safety abound nowadays and many of the most sought-after restaurants won’t consider anyone who turns up on their doorstep.
Leonardo Pereira, kitchen manager and person responsible for stages at Noma says: “Quite simply we are not allowed to do something like that; every intern that comes by has to register in Denmark's social security system and it is my responsibility to make sure that the Danish Labour Agency receives timely updates on the people travelling to Denmark to participate in our programme.”
Adventurous stagiaires take heed: that could be one expensive wasted trip to Copenhagen!
How can I get the most out of my stage?
So let’s suppose, by hook or by crook, you get your dream stage; what can you do to make the most out of your experience?Hard work, an enquiring mind, politeness and tenacity all seem to be the watchwords of the successful stagiaire.
Greg Anderson is sous chef in Ushers restaurant at Norton House Hotel, Edinburgh. A combination of tenacity, a friendly approach and a genuine desire to get involved, propelled him into a more central role in his stage at Grant Achatz’s three-star Chicago restaurant, Alinea.
According to Greg: “Originally I was just picking herbs, but I didn't travel across the world to pick herbs. I managed to get in with a few of the boys on the hot side and did their s**t jobs for them: cutting eucalyptus, washing mushrooms, prepping potatoes etc. But because I was in the middle of it all, I managed to see a lot compared to other stagiaires who were there at the same time.”
Mark Birchall emphasises the importance of an enquiring mind and cultural sensitivity: “Always have a pad in your pocket,” he says. “You might be asked to write something down or you might see something amazing. At El Celler de Can Roca I always had two pads in my pocket – one for phrases and one for recipes. Every country has its own culture; you have to respect that and be prepared to change yourself a little bit and learn.”
Paola Carlini found that it was the willingness to work hard that brought dividends: “The trick about these places is to work hard and try to stand out. It is a very competitive environment and like you, there are 20 other stagiaires. If you don’t work hard, you won’t learn that much and you will not get to see as much as someone who is.”
And don’t forget the wider cultural setting of the place where you are staging, particularly if it is abroad. Oliver Stephens: “It’s really important to soak up the culture of the city – eat at local bistros or other Michelin-starred places and go to local markets. If the CDPs are going out picking or going to markets to buy produce, go with them. Make the most of it otherwise you can get left on the side.”
Is it really worth all the hassle?
There will be ups and downs for sure and days when you will wonder if it was all worthwhile. You might be put on mind-numbing and back-breaking menial tasks some days as Ernst van Zyl was: “There were times when I just wanted to come home because it is tough and some days you do some absolute s**t jobs – I once picked pine needles for eight hours until I couldn’t feel my fingers!”
However if you stick with it and prove yourself, the rewards can be exceptional. Ernst again: “To be there in that environment amongst very passionate, amazing chefs really is inspirational and educational. You get exposed to fantastic techniques, amazing equipment, brilliant food and ingredients you don’t find every day. It will teach you more than any book will ever teach you, more than any college will ever teach you; it’s just amazing.”
STAGING FACT FILE: key facts for staging at the world's top restaurants
What is the application process? Contact via email then complete an application form
What is the Waiting time? 6-7 months (4 months of which are for the Danish Labour Agency to review the application)
Is accommodation provided? No
Minimum / maximum period? Minimum 13 weeks
Contact for stage requests firstname.lastname@example.org
What is the minimum required training / experience? At least two years formal education in cookery
Any other important information? Interns must be at least 18 years of age
What is the application process? Send a CV or fill in the online form. There will be a short telephone interview.
What is the Waiting time? There isn´t a waiting list as such. Mugaritz opens a selection process each year to choose the best candidates.
Is accommodation provided? Yes – bed and board
Minimum / maximum period? Minimum nine months
Contact for stage requests – Mugaritz website
What is the minimum required training / experience? Minimum one year experience
Any other important information?
The Fat Duck
What is the application process? Email or post a CV
What is the Waiting time? There is no waiting list. Successful applicants are offered a range of start dates and these are booked on a first come, first served basis.
Is accommodation provided? No
Minimum / maximum period? One month for The Fat Duck kitchen; three months for the Experimental Kitchen
Contact for stage requests – email: email@example.com or post: Val Clarke, HR Manager, The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ.
What is the minimum required training / experience? Formal culinary training is not necessarily required but a candidate without this would need to have a lot of kitchen experience at a high level.
Any other important information?
Successful applicants must submit a copy of their passport and a medical questionnaire must be completed.
Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons
What is the application process? Fill in the online application form
What is the Waiting time? After September this year
Is accommodation provided? No but help is given with finding accommodation. Recommended local B&Bs sometimes give discounts to Le Manoir interns.
Minimum / maximum period? Minimum length one week / maximum length three months
Contact for stage requests - lemanoircareers.com
What is the minimum required training / experience? There is no minimum training or experience; everyone is welcome.
Any other important information? Le Manoir will create an individual training plan to help you meet your objectives. No matter what your level of experience you will get a chance to experience all aspects of the kitchen, even working on the pass.
El Celler de Can Roca
What is the application process? Email CV to Maria Capell - firstname.lastname@example.org
What is the Waiting time? The Recruiting process starts this September for next year’s stages
Is accommodation provided? Yes
Minimum / maximum period? Minimum four months
Contact for stage requests - email@example.com
What is the minimum required training / experience? You must be doing or have completed a professional cookery course or have equivalent professional experience
Any other important information?