Since the early days of the kitchen brigade system and toques, stagiaires, or interns, have been part of fine dining kitchens, helping chefs and line cooks execute prep for dishes while learning how to work in a professional environment. Today, stagiaires still function under the same premise: inexperienced cooks get an opportunity to sharpen their skills by working in a kitchen with more experienced chefs. The mention of interns or stages can make someone recall a story about peeling potatoes or carrots in a basement for hours on end, but for chefs who see interns as a part of a healthy kitchen environment and want to make sure that they’re offering young cooks as much as they’re getting in return, there’s more to working with restaurant stages.
Gabriel Kreuther, chef and owner of the fine dining restaurant in Manhattan that bears his name, says that at any given time, his restaurant kitchen works with four interns. “We have two for the morning/lunch shift and two for the dinner shift,” he explains. “Pastry would have their own stages, usually one per shift that want to specialize in sweets or pastry and chocolate work.” At Hearth, chef Luigi Petrocelli and his team work with one stage at a time and make sure that stages are incorporated into the team culture. “We are not a giant kitchen and it’s easy for them to feel a part of the team.”
The stagiaire and chef relationship can be beneficial to both parties if both are clear about what is expected and what’s allowed. Here, chef Kreuther and chef Petrocelli share what they’ve learned about working with interns and what advice they have for other chefs on how to build an internship program that works for your kitchen.
Think about what you want them to walk away with.
The key to working with interns or stages is to understand that you have an opportunity to help a young cook learn specific skills and that means dedicating the time to working with them in your kitchen. “I want them to see that in this industry — and that we all care deeply about what we do, and each other,” Petrocelli says.
For Kreuther, it’s about giving young cooks a first-hand view of the hard work that it takes to make it in the restaurant industry. “I want to provide a true insight on what our industry is like,” he says. “I want to show the importance of respect, organization, timeliness, teamwork, and cleanliness.”
Set expectations and be there to help them achieve their goals for their time in your kitchen.
It can be tempting to give interns or stages small tasks that don’t impact service much because they’re inexperienced, but it’s important to trust them enough to let them take on important tasks. ”Don’t put them in the basement picking herbs,” Petrocelli says. “Hold them accountable for things with an understanding that they are learning.”
“Part of being a mentor to an intern is being there to help them if they make mistakes,” says Kreuther. “Encouragement and mentorship are the best support to get them closer to their goals if they are willing to listen and take the advice,” he adds.
Make sure your staff is prepared to work with the interns.
It can be intimidating for a new cook to step into a kitchen, so you want to make sure that your other cooks are aware that they’re expected to treat an intern like a part of the team. “When you’re out of your comfort zone, if you’re surrounded by positivity and passion, you can take everything you want from that experience,” Petrocelli says. But it’s not your job to hand hold, and it’s important to let them meet and interact with the staff in their own way. At Hearth, Petrocelli gives interns space to interact with other line cooks. “Becoming acclimated to the culture is something I leave partly up to them. I have talks and guide them, but learning how to deal with new people, new tasks, in a hectic environment is what this industry is all about. Ultimately, it’s a team working together, so it’s important that they see each other that way.” Kreuther recommends letting interns be a part of daily lineups and meetings so they feel like they’re a part of the kitchen.
Working with interns can also be a learning experience for your cooks on how to be a better team player. “I always tell all my cooks that they are essentially the chef to a stage,” Petrocellis says. “If you show them a task and they do it wrong, it’s your responsibility. It is good for the more experienced cooks to learn how to deal with those situations as well.”
Monitor their progress and keep track of what skills they’ve learned.
Interns at Gabriel Kreuther get to learn a few skills that can translate to every other kitchen they’ll work in. “We mostly focus on knife work, the understanding of proper seasoning, and some butchering” he explains. “It really depends on the level of interest of the individual and being able to follow instruction properly.” All interns are entering your kitchen with a different level of knowledge so you want to work with them to make sure they can handle what’s being asked of them. “All stages’ skill levels are different, so I like to start them on basic skills like knife cuts, learning recipes, and executing the prep of those recipes,” Petrocelli says. “A common job would be for me to have them write a recipe or a ratio of ingredients down and then prep the ingredients and show me when you’re done.” This review will help you see where the intern’s skill level is at. “ So much can be learned in those moments,” Petrocelli continues. “You see if they’re good at taking direction and figuring things out things on their own, which are skills I believe need to be accomplished before moving forward.”
Remember: an intern is a part of your team and is looking at your restaurant as a learning experience. Make sure they’re seeing the best you’ve got.
Petrocelli often thinks about what interns glean from the mental state of the cooks around them. “I promote a better lifestyle for cooks and try to encourage them to think about how we treat each other, getting time off, having a healthier lifestyle,” he says. “Most of the cooks I work with understand this and it is a constant now, so they pass that along.” For some interns, this is their first time seeing a professional kitchen and what they see will have a lasting impact on their career.
An internship is often a first step in a long career for cooks and they’re looking to more experienced chefs for guidance, Kreuther says. “They need to be encouraged to follow their dream or we need to help them formulating one so they can create their own path to success, which is a long road.” Kreuther has found that sometimes his stages ask to stay and become part of the team after their stage is done, which is a good sign that he and his team have made that intern’s time worthwhile. “In certain occurrences, the stage just morphs into a new hire, especially if the stage shows strong interest and commitment to the craft,” he says. And that’s what he wants to see as a chef. “Encouragement and mentorship are the best support to get them closer to their goals if they are willing to listen and take the advice.”