Staging at a four-star restaurant – lesson #1

Stage (pronounced “sta-je as in “Taj”): To work as a stagiare, a chef’s apprentice in a formal restaurant kitchen, or in my case, to be able to spend ~1 night a week when daytime job allows learning what I can in the kitchen.

I can’t say with whom I’ve been staging for fear of not being able to stage anymore, or being questioned by my daytime job/career for my dedication other than to say that I’ve been hanging out in this 4-star restaurant’s professional kitchen for about a month now.  After bugging the cool, collected and oh-so-damn-wise renown chef for ~6 months, I was finally able to gain his acceptance by what food knowledge I had and of course, my beaming smile and charming personality;)

Chef asked me my first day – what do you want to get out of your stage?  The dorky voice that sing-songs from what I realize is me says, “I just want to be immersed in and be exposed to all-things-food” – and so, here I am.

Lessons from stage #1:

1) A professional kitchen is like High School all over again.

Where else in a grown-up work environment do you spend the next 6-8, sometimes 12 hours with your co-workers in a confined space under massive heat, perspiration and all the yelling back and forth, each in their designated stations where naturally you can’t help but form special bonds and “cliques”?  Working as a team to bring together all the components into a single dish but always competing against each other, as each strives to move up, from garde manger to chefs that make sides and sauces to those making core proteins, sous chefs before leaving to become your own executive chef.

- You feel as though you don’t belong there.  You feel a bit like “Black Swan”.  You must prove yourself before you’re the new kid on the block.  Will you take orders but also have a brain to think on your own?  Are you cool enough to be hanging out with the rest of the kitchen team?  Maybe it takes three whole containers of peeling roasted beets before breaking you down.  Maybe you just keeping looking at them and thinking, how beautiful they are.  Doesn’t matter that you’re there just for the night and that you’re working for free.  You still are a “Black Swan”.

2) Whoa.  There’s a lot that happens that goes on before it gets to your plate. Every garnish, every side dishes and proteins that must be prepared, cooked, heated and just so not to mention sauces for each side and protein, seared perfectly, garnished with utmost precision – it brings a new appreciation for how a plate comes to land on your table.

3) I’d love me some backup cleaning crew: Prep person who comes during early morning breaks down all the raw ingredients washing them, cutting them and prepping them so that you’re ready to rock and roll, dishwashing crew that magically appears and takes away all your dirty pots/pans so that you can focus on cooking.  That ain’t happening in our house…ever.

4) The highs of immaculate plating for $300/person special wine dinner times 60 is unforgettable.  Each dish going out must be hot, spotless and on time.  Seeing chef doling out perfectly measured amuse bouche of soup with flick of his hand while others are wiping, moving them into a line, servers whisking them away to patrons anxiously waiting to have that first bite, it’s like symphony.

5) When in doubt – make more than you think you’ll need. Serving 60 – running out of Wagyu beef and then suggesting to take few pieces from other plates to make additional plates just isn’t going to cut it.  You’ll be in the shithouse and the customers will wait but your plate will be hot, spotless and perfect.

6) You only have one chance to make an impression. Famous food writers, reporters and executives will “drop by” ready to pounce with their criticism and hopefully praise.  You’ll even have a Stevie Nicks who supposed stopped by but then changed her mind.

7) Just cuz you work at a restaurant doesn’t mean you eat well. In fact, I didn’t get to eat at all that night, came home hungry and ate some toast before going to bed.  But there are some nights when Chef uses his creativity to conjure up perfectly toasted paninis with leftover rolls and those one or two pieces of wagyu, sweet bread or macaroons sampled that seem to taste so much sweeter than if you were handed a plate.

About chefkelly

Leveraging a lifelong passion for food and combining a unique cultural mesh of korean cuisine, robust flavors of Texas BBQ and California cuisine, Chef Kelly brings her own signature style to delectable perfect bites exploring complex and often surprising interplay of flavors, textures and colors. She has honed and shared her craft through her experiences from five star restaurant kitchens to private cooking instruction to her self-written food blog at chefkelly.com all made with 2 tablespoons of love; love for food, love for life.
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