I started cooking as a hobby when I was 6 or 7 years old. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in the kitchen, but I am very comfortable in that environment and find cooking and baking to be relaxing activities. People have told me that my dishes are very good, but when I cook I primarily focus on speed and taste and less on presentation.
As I have gotten older I have enjoyed dining out more and have always found the focus, pace and skillsets exhibited in Michelin quality restaurants to be very fascinating. My parents always suggested I go to culinary school as a teenager, but I knew that most chefs lived a humble existence and I always wanted more financial security.
Giving It a Shot
In the Spring of 2016 at the ripe old age of 34, I was between jobs and had 6 weeks to travel and relax before I started at my next company. Just prior to leaving my previous company I planned out a 1.5 week trip through the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize, but I also decided I would finally give working in a kitchen a shot.
I knew that many fine dining restaurants staffed their kitchens with Stages (Interns), so I emailed all the Michelin starred restaurants in downtown San Francisco and asked them about an opportunity to stage. I kept my introductory emails very brief and stated that I have a passion for cooking, but no formal training or experience.
Surprisingly 3 restaurants responded!
Coi (2 Michelin Stars at the time, Now 3 Stars)
Californios (1 Michelin Star at the time, Now 2 Stars)
Lazy Bear (1 Michelin Star at the time, Now 2 Stars)
Each of the head chefs asked me about my availability and the amount of time I would able to commit. They also briefed me on the tools I would need to bring to the kitchen (chef’s jacket and knives) and the typical work hours. After doing additional research into each of the restaurants and their menus, I decided to join the team at Coi for 4 weeks.
Learning on the Fly
I showed up at Coi on my first day around 11am and entered through the back door on a side street off of Broadway, which led directly into the kitchen. The team was already hustling around the small kitchen doing prep, so I was a bit nervous to interrupt, but I introduced myself to the closest person to me and told him it was my first day as a stage.
He took me downstairs to the main prep area of the restaurants and gave me a quick lay of the land and told me where to get changed. Afterwards he introduced me to the head chef and a few of the team members who were around. From that point forward I just dove right into the prep with all the other chefs. No training at all, just learning on the fly and doing things as efficiently and precisely as possible.
Being One with the Team
Coi is open 5 days a week with the first seating at 5:30pm. I would show up each day around 11am and all the other chefs were already busy with prep. We would prep right up until the first seating, taking a 15-minute break to eat a staff meal which was prepared with the left-over scraps from the previous days’ prep. Once dinner service started the senior chefs would man their stations and I would be as proactive as possible as a utility man. I would clean and dry pots that were coming off the hot station, I would double check that dishes were spotless before food was plated on them and I would run and get supplies when they were needed.
The kitchen is a true meritocracy, if you exhibit the skills and passion to take on a task, then you will be given a shot. I was amazed by the passion and commitment that the other chefs and stages had in their craft. Most were in their 20’s and had university degrees in addition to formal training at culinary schools. There was even a stage who was only 18 years old and had already been at Coi for a couple months. During my time at Coi, he was given the opportunity to plate dishes for one evening, but that only lasted 30 minutes. It soon became apparent to the head chef that the 18-year-old didn’t have the speed or precision to plate dishes during service, so he was called off the line.
Typically, how it works is that young chefs will stage at a fine dining restaurant for 3-6 months with the goal of developing their skills and working with different menus. Most stages also hope to be picked by the restaurant as a paid chef, otherwise they will move on to the next opportunity. The fact that these individuals work and train so hard for free for the opportunity to work with the best talent and ingredients is really amazing.
Speed, Precision & Consistency
What I learned from my 4 weeks at Coi was not how to cook, but how to operate. Running a fine dining restaurant is all about speed, precision and consistency. Every single task and process is fine tuned to maximize these 3 factors. Here are some examples.
- When you went from Point A to Point B in the restaurant, you were expected to hustle. If you were moving past someone’s back, then you had to call out your presence to avoid a collision.
- The service time for every dish was timed from the moment the order was called out by a waiter to the moment it left the pass. If the kitchen wasn’t running efficiently enough then the head chef would notice and make everyone aware of it.
- Every single hot dish was cooked with a timer. There were 6-8 magnetic digital timers around the hot station to keep track of everything that was cooking.
- One of my tasks involved sorting out chives by color and only keeping the ones that had the same consistent green color.
- All the frying stations had thermometers in them to ensure the right cooking temperatures.
- 75% of the work a chef does is completed during prep. We measured, cut, sorted and individually wrapped and labeled every component of a dish during prep, so that during service the only thing left to do was to cook the protein and plate the dish like a puzzle.
Nuances of the Trade
I loved every part of my stage experience. Things moved so fast, but I learned so much from just observing, mimicking and being proactive. Here are some things that stood out that I will always remember.
- From day one, even though I was a complete newbie with no formal experience or training, everyone at the restaurant from the head chef down to the waiters would refer to me as “Chef”, just like all the other cooks in the kitchen. It was humbling to be given that level of respect even though it was not deserved.
- One day I doubled shucked peas for 6 hours. (i.e. Removing peas from the pod and then removing the thin membrane from the outside of each pea). I asked another chef during this task if I could sit down, because it seemed like something I could do in a chair and he said it would be frowned upon. Imagine having to stand up for 12+ hours a day with no breaks. I am a pretty fit individual and I will say without a doubt that staging was the most physically grueling thing I have ever done.
- Whenever a chef has a free moment he is cleaning. If you are done with your prep tasks then you are cleaning, if you just finished plating a few dishes during service and have a spare 60 seconds then you are wiping down the counter or sweeping your area. And at the end of every night the entire team works to “break down” the kitchen. We get buckets of soap and water and sponge down every surface of the kitchen, including countertops, inside of fridges, walls and floors.
- The most used tools of a chef is his knife, tweezers and a Sharpie. The knife to cut, the tweezers to finely sort and plate ingredients and the Sharpie to label every single ingredient that you prep.
Would I recommend doing a stage if you are an avid cook? Probably not. Again, I think you will learn less about cooking and more about process. A fine dining kitchen is not a classroom, your colleagues are there to prepare the menu as best they can. There were moments when they would correct aspects of my technique, but otherwise you learn through observation and by asking relevant questions during appropriate times. But I will say that if you have any interest in opening up your own restaurant or food-related business then staging would serve you well, because you will learn to develop efficient processes.
Feel free to ask me any questions about my experience below.