Greener Than Neon: My First Stage

Stage is pronounced like ‘Dodge’ – really like ‘sta-dge.’ It’s basically an opportunity to work for free in a restaurant kitchen. With the plethora of cooking shows out there, you may have heard of this term already. I say ‘opportunity’ here because even though the chef is getting free labor, you are getting a crash course in what this particular restaurant kitchen is like to work in. I’m about to tell you below that it isn’t like what I’ve been describing about attending culinary school. (See previous EAT posts for such descriptions.)

I’m not sure this establishment would like me writing about it on the world wide web so to protect the “innocent” I’ve changed all the names.

I met a head chef of a local restaurant while enjoying a cocktail with PhD one weekday evening at a different local restaurant. I mentioned being a culinary student, and he invited me to come by his restaurant. The next day after school I did so, and he spent almost two hours giving me a tour of the place. He also talked to me about how soft culinary schools are and how they are turning out whiny, self-righteous brats who can’t stand real hard work and putting in their dues. During that chat, I was both really intimated and really intrigued – this could be some interesting out of school learning time.

He invited me to come stage that weekend. I reiterated that I never worked in a restaurant kitchen and reminded him it was Valentine’s/President’s Day Weekend. He said come by Saturday at 4PM, and I’d be working with the Pastry Chef. At the very least the experience would give me this post to write – at the worst, I’d get kicked out within the first 10 minutes. So a moderate two thumbs up and let’s go!

I wasn’t really nervous until I arrived, and the only way I can think to describe the next six hours of my life was from the perspective of an office (clarification, pre-COVID office). I just left 15 years working in various offices so for the office dwellers out there, follow along with me.

Take a second to imagine your work space. Think about your physical space or office, where people are in relation to you, and where stuff is – the printer, your computer, office supplies, files, cabinets, and how far you have to go to get places – the lounge, the bathroom, your boss’s office. Think about how you function during the day – how you work on different projects, how you interact with people in meetings or on the fly.

Ok, got a good picture? Now imagine this office:

  • Out of no where, people more senior to you can come and start working in your space and have the right of way, so if you have work spread out, you need to collect all your shit immediately, move your arse and wait until the person is done doing whatever they are doing before you resume your project.
  • You turn for a split second to grab something and when you turn back, someone is working in your space. Depending on their rank, you either have to wait, can politely ask them to move, or you wait until they aren’t looking, move their stuff aside and resume your work.
  • After you go home for the day, another office crew arrives and uses your work space and your stuff – the stuff may or may not be there when you return for your next shift.
  • Oh, and to get to your work space, you need to walk right through the middle of six offices filled with people having meetings, on the phone, entrenched in work, etc. One or two of them may be your superior(s) and they are not to be disturbed so walk quick and on air.
  • In order to get new supplies, you must walk through the six offices to get them. These supplies are in four different locations, all down one or more set of stairs and some are outside.
  • And if you need to go to the bathroom, you have to walk through the six offices as well – and back of course.
  • While you are working on a project, more projects can come at any time and you always need to drop what you are doing to finish the most recent request first.
  • All the time you work, your clients and customers are sitting and watching you work.
  • You are also standing during the entire day on increasingly dirtying floors. Your feet, knees, hips and back start hurting at an hour generally inverse to your age and highly dependent on your footwear choice. I was 37 with standard issue kitchen shoes so that was at about hour marker 3.
  • People are also talking all around you – constantly – so if concentration on a project involving calculations or delicate handiwork is what you require, better learn some zen-like mind-focus.

Ok, I’ll admit some of these have strong resemblances to offices I’ve worked in, but does it sound like a fun, productive place?? Well, it kind of was.

The evening sure went fast, and I was just trying to not screw things up. In the process, I actually made creme anglaise and caramel (which I had never done before and turned out pretty well), quarted up a bunch of different finished products and ingredients (that is, to put in plastic, washable quart containers for refrigerator storage), helped to make chocolate dough for tarts, plated a few desserts and made carrot cake batter.

Six hours of that intense mental focus and physical activity left me totally wiped, but with a strange sense of accomplishment plus wanting to try it again so I could do it better.

When I stopped by the following week to thank the chef for the opportunity, I asked him what everyone I worked with said about my performance. He said he thought I did fine, which was really extremely generous of him to say. Of course I felt greener than neon. I want to go back for more…at least just to see if I could change to a less bright shade of green.

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