You may have often heard chefs speak about the time they staged at a restaurant under a top toque.
Simply put, a stage is an unpaid internship a cook takes to expose him- or herself to new techniques. Before the advent of culinary schools, this was the most common form of education.
And in many top-level restaurants around the globe, chefs got their starts through staging, noting that much personal inspiration came from those they learned from.
“When I was a teenager, my mother got me a job at the St. Botolph Club, a private hangout for Boston's elite on Commonwealth Ave,” says chef Barbara Lynch, chef and restaurateur of her eponymous group of restaurants in Boston. “I started taking care of the rooms for the club's overnight guests, but within a few years I graduated to waiting tables. And I wasn't a very good waitress—one night, I overloaded the dumbwaiter and sent 16 salad plates crashing to the ground. What I lacked in grace, however, I made up for in energy and curiosity. I loved watching Mario cook things that were so foreign to me, like jellied consommé, squab, and sweetbreads (my favorite). Mario cooked in the Escoffier-style—I had no idea what that meant until later in life—but had amazing exposure to classic French cooking."
“My days in London were very informative,” says Tory McPhail, executive chef of the highly-lauded Commander’s Palace, a Garden District landmark in New Orleans. “I was at L’Escargot and The Picasso Room. It’s interesting to immerse yourself in a different environment; you learn a lot more in a shorter period of time.”
And some chefs still stage to this day to keep the fire alive.
“I enjoy stepping away and going into someone else’s kitchen,” adds McPhail. “Especially doing so internationally! I’ve loved seeing the different kitchens on my travels through Australia, Costa Rica and places all over the world. Soon, we’re heading to the Dominican Republic and I can’t wait to explore.”
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“One of my most memorable experiences was actually at my friend Ihsan's mother's home in Turkey,” recalls Lynch. “It was incredible to witness her prepare a luncheon for 12 of us—pulling out the best China and glassware—hearing their family's memories and stories associated with the food. It's rare to find that flavor of soul in restaurants.”
So, what is a stage? Lynch sums it up in a nutshell: “Stages allow for passion to be transferred, to be demonstrated and shared along with skill and technique.”
"I remember Mario inviting other Escoffier-trained chefs in for dinners, which was truly eye-opening, from the table setting to the food and service," Lynch recalls. "Imagine perfectly-cut grapes still on the vine and lined down a long table, and white-gloved hands lifting cloches, in perfect sync, to reveal the dish beneath. That was the first time that I realized that cooking was about more than just feeding people—it could be art.”