A Letter to Prospective Stagiaires
You have more power than you think.
About a week ago, several prominent chefs with restaurants in Europe sent me a link to a recent story in the Financial Times about the working conditions of stagiaires in fine dining restaurants. It’s not the first story about this issue and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This one was specifically about Copenhagen, which has for the past decade, been more or less the center of the scene, at least by the number of elaborate tasting menu restaurants that exist there, not to mention the number of cooks that claim to have trained at them on their resumes.
It all started in January when Lisa Lind Dunbar, who had spent 15 years working in Danish fine dining restaurants and was triggered by a viral photo, called out for stories on her Instagram page for those who felt they had been mistreated while working in Danish restaurants. Here’s what happened, according to a story in the Financial Times:
What happened was an avalanche. Stories poured in about abuse of all forms: sexism, racism, homophobia, bullying, dangerous working conditions. One person wrote in about a chef who used to throw his staff’s phones in the deep-fat fryer, another about her experience of being sexually assaulted by a prominent sommelier, another about a chef who kept a gun in his drawer at work to shoot rats in the restaurant elevator, reams and reams of accusations that Dunbar reposted to her Instagram stories. Suddenly, the whole restaurant industry was watching.
The article details various accounts from former stagiares and restaurant employees in Copenhagen’s fine dining restaurants and Nordic utopia being just a myth.
Noma in particular is singled out for its use of stagiares. According to the article, it has up to 30 stagiares at a time who sign on for 3-month positions, which were previously unpaid but will transition to paid in the next year.
When I read the story I immediately thought back to a conversation I had recently with two young cooks. Both told me their separate cringe worthy experiences staging in well known, Michelin starred restaurants in Europe. They had gone their to learn and ended up doing little more than janitorial work and treated in a way that no humans should ever be treated.
On her excellent Substack newsletter Bord that reports on Copenhagen’s dining scene, Lisa Abend correctly points out that this issue is not limited to Noma or even Copenhagen, as much as the FT story would like us to believe:
“…this phenomenon is not confined to Copenhagen. West-Knight makes this point herself, but it has gotten somewhat lost in the ensuing conversation, which sometimes makes it sound like Noma itself invented the stagiaire system. High-end restaurants around the world rely on stagiaires, and there have been periodic exposés of the conditions in which they work before, whether in Spain, the US, or Italy.”
Abend, which will be doing a series of posts about stagiaires in Copenhagen that I highly suggest you follow, also points out that she doesn’t believe fine dining couldn’t exist without this kind of labor or that you cannot have a good experience as a stagiaire. This is something I also agree with. Being a stagiaire is not a universally bad choice. I’ve known many people that have had extremely beneficial experiences by being an unpaid stagiaire. For example, many of the cooks that do a 6-month stage at Mugaritz have come out of there with a greater set of skills and better understanding about cooking than many high priced culinary degrees and are not in debt because of it.
Apprenticeships are not a new phenomenon in the culinary world. Just like Noma now, a stage at El Bulli used to be all the rage and many chefs found funding for restaurants just because of it (whether they deserved it is another story). You can go back centuries in France and Japan and find apprentices toiling away at simple tasks for years at a time to master a craft. Even today, most culinary schools require apprenticeships at restaurants in order to graduate. Under the right conditions, they do have value.
However, I have met many people who have had terrible experiences as stagiaires lately. They were told to scrub trashcans for months at a time. Or they just picked flower petals all day long every day and never learned anything about cooking or what it takes to work in a restaurant. That’s shit and those restaurants are taking advantage of young people in a vulnerable position that are just hoping to gain knowledge. They don’t deserve you.
We are in an unprecedented moment. Aside of the reckoning that has been occurring in professional kitchens over the last several years, we are in the midst of perhaps the greatest kitchen staff shortage at a global level in history. You have more power as a young cook to get the position you deserve than ever before.
Right now, more than ever, you have the power to change things. Yes you. The one reading this thinking about applying to some far away fine dining establishment with a famous name.
Staff shortages are widespread. You can get a good, paid position now at a decent restaurant and you can negotiate the things you want to learn there. If you just want a big name for your resume, that’s probably all you are going to get.
There is no good reason to be an unpaid stagiaire at restaurant unless you know what you are going to get out of it. Have expectations and things you want to learn. Ask questions and see if that position is right for you. It might not be. If a restaurant isn’t clear what a stagiare position will entail, or doesn’t adhere to a basic set of principles, they don’t deserve your time.
You don’t have to work there.
You don’t have to give them extra hands.
If they are not giving you some sort of value for your precious time, then don’t give it to them.
If a restaurant can’t operate without the work of unpaid stagiaires, then let them fail.
Fine dining does exist in non-abusive atmospheres. It does exist without teams of unpaid stagiares that learn nothing. It can work. I have seen it.
If you do decide to become a stagiaire, know what you are getting into. Have expectations and things you want to learn. Ask questions and see if that position is right for you. It might not be. There are alternatives.
Again, you have the power. This is an unprecedented moment in time. If you don’t use it now, things will never change.