All the World's a Stage
Chef James Roberts instructs Julia Burke in the kitchen at Park Country Club. All photos by kc kratt.
When I used to tell people I wanted to be a writer, the immediate response from older writers was invariably, “Lots of people think they want to be writers. If you could be happy doing anything else—anything at all—do that instead.” If, instead of just waving off harsh words, wannabes could spend a day, week, or month in the trenches—reading rejection after cold rejection, organizing millions of receipts to amass tax write-offs, searching endlessly for affordable health insurance—the profession wouldn’t seem quite so glamorous. And if being a wordsmith isn’t for the faint of heart, being a chef is only for the toughest of the tough: constant pressure, excruciating hours in a hot kitchen, and a work schedule that precludes any sort of normal social life, all to feed strangers who may or may not understand what you’re trying to do.
In the world of chefs, aspiring professionals do get a chance to witness the life firsthand in the rite of passage known as stage. Stage (rhymes with fromage), which is essentially a period of free labor in a kitchen for an unspecified period of time, is many things in the restaurant industry. For culinary school students and cooks with limited experience, it’s a chance to get work experience and a taste of the excitement, pressure, and intensity of a renowned restaurant. For more experienced chefs, it’s a chance to spend time in another kitchen and learn from a revered chef, perhaps in an exotic or unfamiliar part of the world. And for most chefs at one point or another, it’s the most important part of the hiring process. Sure, you can sit at a table and brag about how cool you are under pressure. But what happens when you’re thrown into the trenches, the restaurant’s completely booked, you’ve just realized you need to cut up about ten pounds more potatoes—and the six parties hanging out at the bar all know each other and decided to sit down an hour early? Your potential employer wants to see you in action, and chances are he or she isn’t as interested in your onion-slicing skills as your motivation, attitude, desire to learn, and ability to handle the psychological roller coaster that a night in a world-class kitchen entails.
“It’s great when your restaurant gets to a point where people want to come, want to give you a week of their lives to work in that environment and see how your kitchen operates,” explains Edward Forster, executive chef at Mike A at Hotel Lafayette. Owner Mike Andrzejewski adds, “If someone comes in for a week or more, you know they’re committed—they’re not just here to steal ideas or put something on their résumé. This isn’t a tourist thing. We want stages to observe and contribute.” After working in London, where he had the opportunity to stage at several restaurants, Forster staged with Andrzejewski at Tsunami and the two developed a bond. He traveled for the chance to work with celebrity chefs including Georges Perrier, Jean Georges, Graham Elliot, and Paul Kahan, but returned to Buffalo to take the helm at Mike A’s. “If you’re young, you don’t know the ins and outs of the profession yet,” he explains. “You’re trying to branch out and get ideas once you have the core skills.”
When it comes to stage as a part of the hiring process, Andrzejewski is unequivocal. “The stage is more of an interview than the interview,” he says. Forster adds, “I’ve never accepted a position without staging. It’s a two-way interview: Is the kitchen up to your standards? What is the general attitude? We coach our people on how to coach the stages—the way we peel carrots, for example—so they get an accurate depiction of what we do.” This process, Andrzejewski says, is as much a commitment for the restaurant as for the stage. “You hear the horror stories about the free labor aspect, but here, it’s more work for us than them,” he says. “We sacrifice time, showing them around, getting them organized.”
On the other hand, Andrzejewski points out that his employees benefit from hosting stages, too. “Being a good cook and being a chef are completely different things,” he says. “You have to think about whether employees’ needs are being met and they’re doing a good job; all of it falls under your responsibility. When someone gets to work with a stage once in awhile, it gives them a taste of leadership, of the future.”
That means the stage had better make the experience worth the restaurant’s trouble. When cooks come to stage with her, Jennifer Boye, executive chef at the Mansion on Delaware, says, “Attitude is ninety-nine percent of it. You can tell right away if someone is good-natured, rolls with the punches, doesn’t get rattled. I look for someone who’s not afraid to ask questions and takes advantage of every minute in order to build a knowledge base. And I’m looking for work ethic. Do you offer to come in early, stay late, take on extra work? This life isn’t easy—bad money, no personal life, hot kitchens—but if it’s what you really want, the good far outweighs the bad. The camaraderie, the comfort in the chaos—if you love it, it creeps into your blood.”
Ross Warhol, executive chef at the Athenaeum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institution, has a stage resumé that reads like a celebrity chef; the fact that he did these stages before he was twenty-one makes it all the more impressive. When the promising young chef graduated from culinary school and pastry school, he had a chance to attend the World Pastry Championships, where he learned that El Bulli (the highest-rated restaurant in the world until it closed last year) chef Ferran Adria would be a presenter. “I said to myself, I’m going to make sure he knows who I am by the end of the week,” recalls Warhol, who landed a spot as Adria’s demonstration assistant, which gave him the chance to make an impression. “After the demonstration, we would hang out at the bar; I would ask him questions and pick his brain because I wanted to take advantage,” says Warhol. “By end of the week he asked if I would like to be part of the 2010 El Bulli team.” Ten months later (an excruciating and often nerve-wracking wait, he recalls), Warhol was on a plane to Barcelona. He went right from the airport to the El Bulli kitchen and started working before he’d even seen his apartment.
“I didn’t know one word of Spanish, but I picked up the kitchen language; the friends, the connections I made there, the whole experience of being able to travel while I was there, made it the best ten months of my life,” Warhol says. “They threw us right into it. You’re handling and actually making recipes. 3,500 people apply and only thirty-five get chosen, so it’s the best-of-the-best stages. Everyone has great skill sets. I was twenty-one, twenty-two, and the ages went all the way up to thirty-eight.” Having experienced a wide range of stage situations, Warhol concludes that the rite of passage is “definitely necessary. Any young chef needs to stage. It’s the bottom of the ladder and you work your way up; you can hit up two or three stages in one year at two or three different places. It makes you stronger—people definitely bag on the stagiere—but it’s worth it.”
Staging is far from glamorous, and horror stories abound. Brad Rowell, sous chef at Park Country Club, gave glowing reviews to most of his stages, but recalls staging at one top-rated restaurant and getting “the stereotypical bad stage: being stuck in the basement peeling carrots for hours.” Warhol experienced one stage that was more “military-like” and stressful; at this world-renowned restaurant, he says, “Everyone was working for themselves; there was no unity, no sense of team. Everything would get out smoothly and be complete, but people were always putting you down, screaming. They were extremely long days—I’d go in at noon and be there till 3:30 in the morning, and take an hour-long train ride home. The final straw for me was the chef du cuisine laid into me pretty good, essentially questioning my existence here on earth. I just looked at him and said ‘Yes, Chef,’ and went home and thought to myself, ‘I show up, I’m working these long hours for free, and I just don’t want to go through with it. I’m miserable and if I stick it out any longer, I’ll hate my profession.’”
Getting yelled at isn’t uncommon, though Mike Andrzejewski, owner of Seabar, Cantina Loco, and Mike A at Hotel Lafayette, jokes, “I generally wait until I’m paying people before I start screaming at them.” Forster had the quintessential break-the-stage experience. “I staged at the best restaurant in the country recently,” he says. “It was an intense environment; if I met someone’s eye, I would get yelled at. I was told to slice bean sprouts into eighth-inch slices; it ended up taking me about forty-five minutes, but I was told it should take an hour and a half. After I had been there a few days, there was a prep day and the sous chef asked me to help break down short ribs. We took all the stuff out, then the chef saw what was happening and yelled, ‘Why is the stage touching protein?’ The sous got totally dressed down, and I just started sweeping the floor.” A few days later, Forster was offered a job at the restaurant. Later that very same day, he recalls, “We were plating and the chef shouted that ‘everyone who doesn’t work here’ should get out. I continued working, and suddenly I felt him grab me by the back of the collar. He said, ‘Are you deaf?’ and I answered, ‘What’s that, Chef?’ I got off the line, washed my face, went home, and never went back.”
Like Warhol, Forster believes staging is overwhelmingly worthwhile despite the potential pitfalls. “To be around people who always want to tell you a better way to do things—it can be great,” he says. “Some chefs beat their chests; others are father figures.” Or mother figures—Boye describes herself as such. “I don’t scream at stages. I kind of mother them, to be honest,” she says. Boye, who was hired right out of culinary school during her first semester by one of her instructors, has never done a stage herself. “I was learning on the job and getting paid,” she explains. “But staging is a wonderful tool, a good way to put your best foot forward.” She’s heard the stories of stages relegated to menial tasks rather than more exciting work, but points out, “Look at sushi chefs—they don’t touch fish for years. They’re learning knife skills, chopping vegetables. The goal is to get free labor, yes, but [also] to make sure they have one task mastered before they move on.”
Andrzejewski shares his own stage story, at a restaurant in New York: “I was really excited, and didn’t really expect to be allowed to do much, but I showed up in my whites and brought my knives,” he recalls. “The sous chef took one look and said, ‘Don’t use those knives on my food.’ He gave me his knives—Nenox knives [Japanese knives that can cost anywhere from $350 to $700 apiece]—to use for the day, and I cleaned baby turnips. They let me plate some elaborate appetizers, kind of as a courtesy, and at the end I got a tasting menu. To see how they run things, it was humbling to eat the food after experiencing that. It made me strive for a higher quality of work.” That inspiration, the sense that as a cook you are a part of something great, is perhaps the best outcome for a stage, whether the experience comes with a job offer or not. “At El Bulli I didn’t care about pay; the information and knowledge was priceless,” says Warhol. “Same with the other stages I’ve done. I plan to keep staging the rest of my life. It’s draining mentally and physically, but for me, the passion burns in you and you’re going to find a way to push through it.”
Julia Burke with members of the Park team. Photo by kc kratt.
“Training is everything” —Mark Twain
Staging is all about getting one’s hands dirty, and in order to glimpse a day in the life of a stage, I became one myself. Chef James Roberts of the Park Country Club was gracious enough to let me stage with him. Roberts, a natural teacher, creates a positive learning environment in his kitchen and plays to the strengths of individual chefs to grow competent, well-rounded leaders. “I’m hoping I can share those that gain strong culinary skills with local restaurants so that we can get better cooks in the lower tiers of Buffalo crews and get better all the way around. That’s the ideal dream,” he explains. Indeed, his hardworking and focused team is a mix of fairly new cooks, many of whom have staged at prominent restaurants; more experienced cooks who have worked their way up through the stations in his kitchen and are developing strong leadership skills; and his talented sous chefs, Katie Forsyth and Brad Rowell. Rowell has staged at some of the world’s top restaurants, and Forsyth will be leaving Park Country Club to take a sous chef position at a spa and resort in Asheville, North Carolina. Before she starts, she’ll get to stage at another top restaurant in Asheville. “It’s an awesome opportunity to meet people in a new town as well,” she says. “I’m looking forward to exploring the city.”
Though I’m plenty comfortable in my own kitchen, I’ve never worked a cooking job in my life, so this was a leap of faith for me, for Chef James, and for his team, who affably endured my attempts to stay out of the way. What follows is a partial timeline of what transpired.
1 p.m., two days before stage: I receive a text from Chef James letting me know that I start Saturday at 6 a.m. It continues, “Jamon croissants with charred shishito peppers for breakfast into a carved NYC deli lunch into a multicourse plated dinner for 240 :)” I respond with an expletive, followed by “I’m in.”
4:45 a.m., day of stage: Alarm goes off. I put on a white-buttoned shirt and black polyester pants, guzzle coffee handed to me by my far-too-alert boyfriend. For some reason, thinking I may not eat for a while, I grab a yogurt before heading to Park.
6 a.m.: I arrive and am given sous chef Katie Forsyth’s clothes. Breakfast for the members of the club’s invitational golf tournament, ending today, is coming up and it’s time to make croissant breakfast sandwiches with eighteen-month-old jamon and eggs as well as charred shishito peppers, chorizo, and other sides.
6:10 a.m.: We find out breakfast is to be served at 7:00, not 7:30, but Chef doesn’t seem fazed.
7 a.m.: After I’m handed two croissant sandwiches and instructed to eat them, we run upstairs so Chef can slice jamon for the golfers. He greets them while slicing and asks how they’re playing this weekend. “Any role. Any time,” he says to me as we head back to the kitchen.
8:30 a.m.: I realize that if I don’t want to lose Chef, I need to learn to run up stairs two at a time.
10:30 a.m.: I pick the feet from sixty pounds of U-8 diver scallops, then am asked to chiffonade basil (hand-picked from Chef’s garden) for soup. “Basic knife skills?” Chef asks. I hesitate. He hands me his perfectly weighted Japanese cooking knife and in two minutes, I learn to use it.
11:30 a.m.: I slice two full trays of hard caramel and pistachio nougat into pretty cubes, to be placed in paper cups and used as dessert delicacies. I also slice my right index finger.
12 p.m.: I take a twenty-minute break for a golf cart tour of the club’s gorgeous course—the only time I sit down during a fifteen-hour shift.
3 p.m.: I shuck oysters and split clams with the chefs while they discuss their own stage stories. Most have had some exciting stages, but “nothing like what Chef provides for us here”—a comparatively patient and nurturing training environment. “The time of the tyrant is over,” Chef James declares later, as he slices smoked bacon.
5:30 p.m.: I help delicately place shrimp, oysters, and clams on the beautifully lit raw bar among guests dressed to the nines, completely invisible to them as they chatter and sip their cocktails. I love the feeling of being part of the backstage crew. The guests are in for a treat: a tasting menu featuring “dueling” appetizers (scallops and crab creviche) and entrées (filet and halibut), a beautiful arugula salad, and dessert by pastry chef Dory Matwijkow.
7 p.m.: The plating line forms to get each course out to the guests, and at this point I’m completely useless. Zach, the real stage, and I wish we could help; instead we’re handed covered plates of each course and ordered to eat them. We oblige.
9:30 p.m.: Desserts go out, and within minutes the cooks are cleaning up and getting ready for the next day’s work. Beers at Loughran’s are discussed.
10 p.m.: I sit down for the first time since noon on a barstool at Loughran’s and take a shot of Maker’s Mark with the crew. Tomorrow morning, while I sleep, they’ll do it all over again.
Julia Burke writes about food and spirits for Spree.
Chef James Roberts delivered an outstanding TedxBuffalo 2012 talk on mentorship in October: