The original definition of stagiaire is a young cyclist who's groomed by a professional team to build skill and winning potential. A young cook chooses to study under a reputable chef with the same intent. But the term can refer to anyone, from professional gardeners to opera singers, seeking a world-class career in the arts that builds a plan that includes work under an identified master. Plainly put, staging is a master class and “a requisite for a meaningful career in the professional kitchen.”
The job description is simple: “Show up appropriately dressed with a good attitude, ready to work hard. Pay attention. Don’t talk too much.” (31) It’s helpful as well to be packing a notebook and pen and a healthy measure of both confidence and self-sufficiency. A stagiaire’s credibility (and quality of assignments) will plummet if a finely tuned brigade senses a need for handholding. Courage is important too.
Like the cyclist, a stagiaire will come with some experience. I had been apprenticing in seriously good French restaurants in Canada for five years—working garde manger, pastry and entremetier—by the time I landed in France.
I wanted to be held in esteem—most acutely because I was the only woman—so I looked for opportunities to go the extra mile. That’s a tall order given that tasks in the beginning are assigned under the assumption that, no matter her experience, a stagiaire knows nothing. (The French are masters at asserting this kind of culinary superiority.) But after watching a procession of stagiaires come and go, I understood their wariness. I settled on coming in early from afternoon break to set up the entremetier station for service—filling oil bottles, and getting pots and pans, towels and all the mise en place ready. The men in the kitchen thought it was funny at first—they teased the entremetier about my intent—but I didn’t worry too much about that and in the end I like to think it won me a sliver of respect.
The only other stagiaire in the kitchen was a Danish fellow who’d arrived from Copenhagen two days before me. His name was Bjorn and I found him trying to recover his dignity after having made a couple of early and near-fatal mistakes. Bjorn had arrived for his first shift with a chef jacket that had his name embroidered on it (he'd held an executive position in a restaurant in Copenhagen). That required the purchase of several new jackets since only chef Chibois could be known by name, with the rest of the brigade his anonymous workers. Bjorn also arrived with zero knowledge of the French language. Quelle horreur! So I found him working hard to recover face and taking his cues by carefully watching the crew. My arrival, and in particular my basic knowledge of the language, made us fast friends. We had some fun!
But we were never members of the brigade; a stagiaire is superfluous. She may be deemed useful by the team but there will be no sense of loss when she leaves. While in Cannes another very young stagiaire from England arrived in the kitchen and after a few hours asked (in English) when he could go to the beach. The answer was swift: he could go to the beach at any time. (Subtext: we don’t need you). He never returned to the kitchen after his afternoon break that day.
In the kitchen at the River Cafe
Despite all the French testosterone, the brigade warmed to me once they knew I was serious. There were still a couple of hostile corners—an executive sous chef in his 50s that Bjorn and I called “stress man," and a young, blatantly sexist saucier. We gravitated toward those chefs who didn’t mind having us around. I adored the chef tournant who was a bit of a clown and kept me in stitches (and taught me some very important things about the kitchen and ingredients). His name was Gérard and I have a picture of him in the kitchen striking the Saturday Night Fever pose. He was shocked to discover that I didn’t know who Roch Voisine was. What kind of Canadian was I?
In a recent survey done for Lucky Peach on the subject of staging, chef Michael Berger speaks to the importance of self-direction when he states: “...what they [stagiaires] put in, they’ll get out.” (33) I quickly realized that the experience was mine to craft—there was no six-week plan laid out for my benefit. Luckily I was ambitious and possessed enough initiative to respectfully seek opportunities for work in all stations of the kitchen.
The kitchen tested my resolve early. I was given a half hotel pan of pigeons to gut. A chef de partie showed me how to do one and left me on my own. I suspect more than a few of the chefs were secretly hoping the task would drive me away. On the contrary, I found those little featherless, limp bodies, and the task of extracting their guts, fascinating. They had been decapitated, but in keeping with French taste, still had their feet attached (and were cooked and served that way). I gently pulled the guts out, carefully separating all the usable parts.
Fundamentally, staging should introduce a young cook to new ingredients, techniques and the unique vision of a particular chef. Turns out that gutting pigeons was a glamorous task. The mainstay of my work was just as Lucky Peach suggests: “cleaning, prepping mise en place, and assisting line cooks.” (29)
I worked with the entremetier to begin with, peeled my fair share of baby vegetables and picked plenty of chervil. I was okay with that because I knew my place, had confidence that the time would be well spent, and those mundane tasks gave me ample opportunity to take mental notes of the work going on around me. The Cannes Film Festival opened two weeks after my arrival and, having proved myself and gained the brigade's trust, the onslaught of celebrity diners (including Catherine Deneuve on several occasions) created an opportunity for my tasks to become more complex. After the festival was over, I was invited to a beach picnic by the team. That leisure time with the men and their families was as important to me as time at the stoves.
But working with proteins—butchering meat or fish—or on the line during service comes with time and experience. When I staged at the River Cafe in London seven years later, I was a trade-certified cook in Canada with 12 years experience and my competence couldn’t be hidden. I still did tedious tasks (like spending a day picking fresh crabmeat) but I was also quickly given assignments on the line because they were confident I could hold my own.
In France I had no expectation of working with chef Chibois—that would have been delusional. Besides which, he was a bit of a terrifying figure, arriving for lunch and dinner service to stand at the pass and scream at men his own age, Qu'est-ce que c'est?! (I could see his tonsils.)
A stagiaire might never work with or even meet the executive chef. The more celebrated they are, the greater the demands on their time and attention. At the River Cafe I spent one morning making vignole, a spring stew of fava beans and artichokes, with Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. I was over the moon and they were very complimentary. But their third cookbook had just been released and they were traveling to promote it. I was there to understand their cuisine, not to become their friend.
I learned much from my time in France but confess I did not cook a single thing from that kitchen when I returned to Canada. The food was elaborate and very haute French. My notebook is full of detailed recipes and drawings but there was never the time or occasion to recreate them. I did learn much about quality ingredients and worked with goose foie gras, St. Pierre, fresh langoustine, crosnes, black truffles and white asparagus. But it was the discipline and rigour of the brigade—some two-dozen French men ranging in age from late teens to late 50s—that I remember. Their standards were impeccable and I loved the challenge of meeting them.
My notebook from France
Lucky Peach’s survey suggests that the length of a stage today runs from one day up to several months. (32) I can’t possibly imagine what could be gained from a day in a new kitchen. Internationally celebrated restaurants will have stagiaire programs in place that include a minimum time commitment, usually expressed in months. Great chefs know there is a correlation between time and mastery, and that good things come with extended practice, not by fast-tracking.
All my stages were six weeks in length and involved a passport, personal savings and financial support. My Canadian employer contributed to my airfare and accommodation costs and gave me money to have a few great meals, but that trip to Europe was three months long and also required a loan from my parents. I returned to Canada from France $4000 in debt and spent some time, on apprentice wages, working it off. Being a stagiaire is a career investment; it costs money, from “credit card, savings, friends, and family” as the Lucky Peach survey affirms. (30)
The investment angle is vital in another respect. I was never paid and never expected it. I did have spectacular complimentary meals in my host restaurants at the end of each stage. In France I enjoyed chef Chibois’s tasting menu with exquisite wine pairings from Burgundy and Bordeaux. My labour was the exchange I made for their knowledge.
A stage is not “an old world speakeasy of free labour.” (28) Staging is not exploitative; it is a reciprocal exchange. The obligations of a host restaurant need to be considered. What of the costs of supervising, training and feeding? In France (or on any other stage I did) I never felt resentful, I felt fortunate. That perspective and attitude is winning. As one young person put it in Lucky Peach: “They’ve done enough just letting me in the door. They’re running a business, not a school.” (31)
A stage may lead to work but is not a job tryout. Most stagiaires are employed and released from their work with the knowledge that the skill and experience gained will return and improve the quality of the business where they are employed. Executive chefs who have been stagiaires will encourage this activity for loyal employees and will often help to make this happen.
A fundamental piece of the experience is travel to a foreign locale, being immersed in a new culture, and making new friends and professional connections. As one respondent to the Lucky Peach survey stated: “I made great connections with my fellow stagiaires that span the entire planet.” (32) Being well outside the comfort zone of home and family is helpful in speeding the assimilation process.
But there’s no guarantee that the experience will be entirely pleasant or free of difficulty. Professional kitchens are demanding and filled with tension. I caught shit on a couple of occasions in France. That sexist saucier was stealthy in sniffing out opportunities to highlight my failings. I didn’t mind; it helped build my backbone.
But staging is not for everyone. Beyond the time and cost commitments there can be the tedious bureaucracy associated with crossing international borders and studying in a foreign country. Often accommodation arrangements will need to be secured. Having to undertake those tasks in a foreign language can be both intimidating and frustrating. Staging is a passage that should be hard won.
All of my professional journeys began as dreams. In 1988, the year that I stepped into my first professional kitchen in Canada, I purchased a book called Dining in France. On the table of contents page there's a photo of chef Chibois. On either side are pictures of Alain Chapel and Georges Blanc. I pored over that book, longing to experience its contents. At the time the odds against me working in such a celebrated French kitchen seemed impossible. Yet five years later there I was.
Those experiences grew my skills and built my character. I became more competent and confident. Being a stagiaire was a process of professional curing and maturing that distinguished me from my peers. It’s impossible to translate the rush of stepping into a foreign kitchen for the first time. It’s a heady mix of scared and thrilled. I returned to Canada with recipes and ingredient knowledge. But most importantly I made it happen. I’d stepped out and met my dreams.
 Wilson, Mark. "All The World's A Stage." Lucky Peach Fall 2013: 28. Print.