Stages and cookery schools

The Staff Canteen

Young cooks can learn their trade as unpaid stages in professional restaurant kitchens under the guidance of a mentoring Chef. The practice has become less common in recent decades with the advent of modern culinary schools but it is still an extremely valuable experience for any prospective Chef.

High-end fine dining restaurants often have stages on a constant basis. Despite being unpaid, these positions are extremely competitive. Top restaurants like Noma and Mugaritz receive between 400 and 700 stage applications a month, employing between 15 and 23 at any one time. Patience and tenacity is essential, Chefs are notoriously busy so it is up to you to take the initiative.

For somebody looking to work as a stage, the best policy is to look for the best restaurant possible. The opportunity to work in a kitchen with a strong reputation is not only good for the CV but the larger restaurants are more likely to have a system dealing with stages.

Use your contacts. You may know somebody who already works in a top restaurant but, failing that, your best bet is to contact the Chef. Social media can be a better way to make contact than writing a letter or email, it is more personal and you can be sure that you are actually contacting the Chef rather than an employee. Actually visiting the restaurant is also a good idea: people are harder to ignore than emails.

It is important to establish how long the stage is. They can last for as little as three days or  as long as four months so it can be a huge commitment. Often, a stage begins with a trial  shift to make sure your basic skills are up to scratch but once you secure the role, it is a  fantastic opportunity.

 There will, inevitably, be ups and downs and days when you might be put on mind-  numbingly menial tasks. Ernst van Zyl, now Chef patron at The Lord Clyde in Bollington,      said:

 “There were times when I just wanted to come home because it is tough and some days  you do some absolute s*** jobs – I once picked pine needles for eight hours until I couldn’t  feel my fingers!”

 Nevertheless, if you stick at it and prove yourself, the rewards can be exceptional:

 “To be there in that environment amongst very passionate, amazing Chefs really is  inspirational and educational.” Ernst added, “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.”

Being a stage isn’t the only option for young Chefs. In recent years, culinary schools and kitchen academies have become a popular alternative. An apprenticeship is a great chance to learn alongside some of the country’s finest Chefs and, unlike a stage, you are paid.

Michelin star Chef, Simon Radley, has launched a kitchen academy in Chester and annually offers ten young adults an apprenticeship. Apprentices at Radley’s kitchen academy are matched with a mentor from the experienced kitchen staff at The Chester Grosvenor. Classroom training is also provided and an NVQ level 2 in professional cookery is included in the program. This type of apprenticeship is increasingly common and it is a wonderful way to start your career.

We’ve also spoken to the Chef and the food development manager at River Cottage’s cookery school. Chef Bruce Cole’s advice is to “be punchy, stick to facts, show your willingness to learn and be proud of what you’ve learned and what you’re about. It’s vital to be a team-player when you’re in the kitchen."

Whether you start out as an apprentice or as a traditional stage, there are plenty of opportunities for young Chefs to gain valuable experience. Contacts are key in the hospitality industry. Getting to know and working for some of the country’s biggest Chefs certainly won’t do your career prospects any harm and, with any luck, you will pick up new culinary techniques to set up a long and fruitful career. 

Find your next job as a Chef here.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 11th May 2017

Stages and cookery schools