Resetting the Stage

Chefs rewrite the rules of on-the-job training

Staging—the act of working for free in restaurants in exchange for learning the trade—has long been an industry practice. A stint at certain Michelin-starred restaurants could earn someone bragging rights to last a career. Yet traditional expectations behind staging are changing. More than a rite of passage, the stage is becoming a means to find new hires and provide continuing education for staff. Here’s how chefs are getting in on the sharing and learning.

Open Door Policies

Between the restaurant, the takeout counter and the catering department, a culinary school intern has plenty of work at Insalata’s in San Anselmo, Calif. But Chef-owner Heidi Krahling doesn’t let anyone take an intern for granted. 

“Yes, you want them to do some repetitive work to up their skills, but you also want to give them time with chefs to inspire them to come back every day,” she says.

Krahling moves interns throughout the kitchen, assigning them to a different cook every few days. One day might be focused on catering mise en place while another might involve churning out batches of hummus or slicing pita, picking mint, stemming cherry tomatoes and making vinaigrette for the restaurant’s popular fattoush salad.

If the interns are quick learners, they could land a full-time job. “When you can see that they’re hungry and they have talent and they want a job, we jump to hire them,” Krahling says. 

Sometimes, the learning goes both ways. At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, nutrition majors and graduate students spend 15 to 20 hours in the Bon Appétit Management Company-run campus kitchens to learn the basics of foodservice. When Bon Appétit started rolling out an enhanced nutrition well-being program, the professional cooks faced their own learning curve.

“We now get to ask the students questions, so when they come, it’s more interactive,” Chef Robbie Washington says.

At Chef-owner Kelly Liken’s namesake restaurant in Vail, Colo., the back door is always open for chefs looking to stage, whether they’re in search of a job or just want to roll up their sleeves and work for a day or two. For Liken, someone new in the kitchen brings a fresh perspective and helps foster relationships with chefs at other restaurants.  

“In the past five or 10 years, there has been a growing camaraderie and a desire to work with each other rather than compete,” she says. 

Working Knowledge

Restaurant owners can’t rely solely on staff promotions to retain top employees. To keep her chefs engaged, owner Andrea Carbine of A Toute Heure in Cranford, N.J., encourages employees to stage at other operations to learn new skills. 

“We want to make sure that people have the opportunity to learn and grow with us,” Carbine says.

She helped her night sous chef, Robyn Reiss, arrange a stage at Sullivan Street Bakery in New York to hone bread baking skills. Carbine paid Reiss, a salaried employee, during her days spent at the bakery. In turn, Reiss is now fine-tuning A Toute Heure’s bread program. Inspired, other employees are drafting a wish list of skills they’d like to perfect, such as making charcuterie and fresh pasta. 

“In any industry, you have professional development,” Carbine says. “I don’t see why it should be different in the restaurant industry.”

Pack Your Knives And Go

Will Foden, executive chef of 83 1/2 in New York City, credits staging for exposing him to different culinary styles and an array of management techniques, from inventory management to menu pricing. 

“There are two reasons to stage,” Foden says. “One, you’re going to learn from other people. Two, it makes you better at managing people in general.”

Chef de cuisine Matt Limbaugh, a five-year veteran of Restaurant Kelly Liken, requested time away from Vail to learn more. “I wasn’t looking for a job,” Limbaugh explains. “I was looking to see how other people run their kitchens.” 

Liken made some calls, setting Limbaugh up for stages at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn., and Sbraga in Philadelphia. Upon returning to Kelly Liken, Limbaugh started challenging his cooks to push themselves. 

“If you’re not getting pushed to get out of your comfort zone, you’re not progressing,” Limbaugh says. “It’s about growing.” 

Kate Leahy is an Oakland, Calif.-based food writer and cookbook author who will stage for a decent staff meal.