6 Tips to Stage at a Restaurant Successfully
#1 – Correspondence
The dark horse to bet on for a successful stage is one that sneaks up right at the very beginning of the process, and a lack of registering its value is probably why 90% of most ingenue cooks’ stages crumble before the first bricks even set (don’t pretend, everyone knows it’s true). Irritatingly, the human brain is very quick to present just the right potent, bubbling mix of hormones, in response to the hesitancy most of us feel when applying for a new job that catches in the back of our throats like a hooked fishbone, that inspires a certain lack of urgency and sluggishness. I’ve felt it too: I’ve spent one too many times staring at my computer screen, at my fingers that move like flies in amber, glacial and languid and trapped in the throes of the many seconds and minutes and hours that pass by all too quickly. It’s usually because I’m scared to reach out, even though the very act of reaching out is what impresses most kitchens and sous chefs scouring for potential applicants in the first place. Sure, a well-constructed resume and confident demeanor don’t hurt, but these are kitchen-folk we’re dealing with after all. They’re not looking for academic prowess on paper; they just want to see if you’ve got the initiative to ask for the job in the first place, and then the right questions to make sure you get it.
#2 – Timeliness
It’s a shame that this is still something that needs to be here—what with most people having gone through eighteen years of schooling and possibly more of college to teach them the importance of showing up by a damn door on time—but here we are folks. You correspond and you set up a time that’s convenient for the kitchen to receive you (well, and for you, but nobody wants to hear about how you can’t catch the late train because Auntie Grundy’s got a hangnail and you just can’t leave her; they’ll just find somebody else in this economy and age) and you get there, whenever that may be. It doesn’t matter if you need a watch, sundial or that ludicrous iPhone X (that I’ll probably buy far too soon) to read the time, or if you’re catching a quick flight or an overnight bus to track it; your sheer existence is the first impression you’re going to make, and you really can’t disappoint. The subtext to this, of course, is that you actually get there an hour earlier (why wouldn’t they want you around for an extra hour of prep?!) and wait for your superior to show up and see you standing in clean clothes in the grimy dark alley that stinks of Chinese food from next door, right by the rubbish bins and the stray dogs curled up outside the kitchen entrance. If that’s too hard though, being there on time will do too.
#3 – Awareness
You’re probably going to get a tour. It happens, it’s the sous’ way of checking you out not-very-subtly-at-all while also introducing you to the people you’re going to spend a day with and the various, notable areas of the establishment: the walk-in, the prep fridges, the dry-storage area, the office, the line, the service stations, the friggin’ dish pit…and so on, really. It’ll be very quick—maybe even just five minutes before you’re handed your first assignment—but the importance of clocking in group dynamics, which employees work which stations, where what prep is kept and how the kitchen runs from a general, neutral perspective is paramount. The more you actually absorb during this brief jaunt around, the more you’re going to instinctively know where to go to or what to do when confronted with a task. That’s not to say that you can’t just ask if you don’t know (please, dear God, don’t assume things, it’s really fine to just ask the silly question, no matter how silly it is), but doesn’t it look nicer when you know which shelf in which cooler to put the duck confit is after it’s been submerged just because your eyes were open?
#4 – Open-Mindedness
No, nobody cares if you know how to make a mayonnaise according to the Culinary Institute of America’s standards. It doesn’t matter if your chef from your hometown told you to render duck fat off the breasts by starting it from a cold pan. It is unwise to start reorganizing how the sauté pans and sautoirs on the line are stacked because you can see how much more efficient it’ll be for everyone during service if you just do it like the way they did at your externship. This is not your restaurant yet. You are not a part of this culinary team. Quite the contrary; you’ve come to these people because you believe that they have value, things to teach you and exude skills and instincts that you can soak up from them. It’s a different story if you’re being asked to demonstrate your prowess by knowing the ratio for a velouté and replicating it, but that’s usually not the case; you’re usually there to prep for the night’s service. It isn’t your place to interrupt the sous when he’s describing a recipe for you to prepare by interjecting his meticulously tested recipe with your handy, helpful tips and tricks from Masterchef USA or your fundamentals’ chef from culinary school. This is when you should be taking notes (I should’ve created a whole paragraph on the importance of carrying a pen and pad but eh…).
#5 – Efficiency
This is the easy part, simply because it involves doing exactly what you should be doing in any kitchen: moving as quickly, compactly and cleanly as possible from task to task without compromising on the quality parameters that you’ve been shown. Good restaurants that know how to treat stages are excellent at showing them exactly how they want their soft-boiled eggs cooked, shocked and peeled, or the dimensions for their oblique-cut carrots and salsify. Restaurants that aren’t quite there may forget, but then again it’s a good thing you know how to ask questions. Even in the searing heat of service with the wolves at your heels and tickets spitting at you, there’s still time to show the chef your work quick for a quality check if you deem it necessary before getting right back to it.
#6 – Humility
Just be a good person. Don’t let your attitude, or your fear, precede you; just walk around them and allow your personality to shine, because what else are these cooks going to see every day if you join them? Recognise that being able to go for a stage in the first place is a great privilege—I’ve never, ever heard of any other industry that allows potential employees to walk in through their doors, unscreened save for a cursory glance at a resume, and immediately receive the opportunity to work hands-on, side-by-side with its employees for a whole day, creating the very product they aspire to someday make on their own. Most people get sterile, whitewashed rooms and grumpy, old interviewers; we get the adrenaline and the recipes and experience and opportunities to put our hands into the dirt to sow the seeds. Maybe this is just me being overemotional (if you know me personally, this makes a lot of sense) and maybe everyone else sees stages as standard, industry practice, but I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude when line cooks joke around with me, or invite me to share their family meal or cook me dishes off the menu for me to taste. It warms my heart, it truly does. It makes that job contract so much more worthwhile because you know, you really know, why you’re signing it when you do.
By Altamash Gaziyani
I can't explain why. Maybe it's the hypnotic allure of the shimmering heat from scorching flat tops, the rows upon rows of neatly prepped, ingredients screaming to be fired, and the way my mind sharpens as the first docket of the night comes through. It could be the satisfaction I feel when I tune out the white noise and focus on transcribing that one flavor at the edge of my consciousness, and the euphoria I find just the right word. Chances are it's probably just the joy I feel when I see people stopping their worlds and sitting down to enjoy the food I may have had a hand in preparing for them.
Food keeps me happy. It gives me a reason to wake up at five in the morning and roll hundreds of potato bread boules, mince pounds of garlic or devein buckets of shrimp...and also to compose beautiful plates, innovate on a daily basis and fire order after consistent order until I can barely stand. It makes me question. It gives me discipline. It's blessed me with the best memories and people and life. I couldn't ask for more from it.