The truth about staging

15 October, 2019 by
Madeline Woolway

In the early ’90s, fresh out of his apprenticeship at Hermann Schneider’s Two Faces restaurant, Luke Mangan spent three years in the kitchen of Michel Roux’s three Michelin star London restaurant, the Waterside Inn.

Now one of Australia’s most successful chefs, Mangan says the experience was career-defining. So how did a Melbourne boy get on the roster at an internationally acclaimed kitchen full of French chefs? He sent a letter, received a return note detailing the two-year waitlist for positions, called Roux directly and pleaded his case: a month-long, unpaid stage.

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Workplaces are highly regulated these days, which means working for free to pay your dues is no longer a legitimate way to land an auspicious gig — at least not legally. But staging isn’t a thing of the past — many chefs, and an increasing number of front-of-house professionals, consider the time-honoured tradition a valuable way to gain experience and broaden their horizons.

Hospitality speaks to three chefs and a restaurant manager about what staging looks like in 2019 and how young hospitality talent can make the most of it without succumbing to exploitation.

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Although each staged in different venues, for different lengths of time and at different points in their careers, every stint started with outreach.

Brooke Adey, venue manager at the recently opened Coogee Wine Room in Sydney, was living and working in Adelaide when she attended a food and wine seminar where Banjo Harris Plane, then venue manager and sommelier at Attica, was speaking.

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“The way he spoke about Attica and what they were trying to do was really inspiring,” she says. “I remember thinking he sounded like the kind of person I wanted to spend time with, so I reached out on the day and said I was interested in work experience.”

It was Harris Plane who introduced the concept of a stage to Adey; it wasn’t common in the parlance of front-of-house professionals then (and perhaps remains the case, she adds). After some back and forth, Adey undertook a stage at Attica for two and a half weeks in July 2014. At the time, Adey had eight years’ experience at Chianti in Adelaide, having started in the industry at the age of 17.

“I was looking for what I wanted to do next and where I wanted to go, having only worked in one venue,” says Adey. While it remains the only place Adey has staged to this day, she’s since gone on to run the floor in a number of respected Sydney establishments.

Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana is the lone restaurant on Mitch Orr’s list of stages. The chef found himself at the two-time world no.1 restaurant in 2010 after taking out the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef Award in the same year. Back then, Orr says, you needed to attend one of Italy’s cooking schools to stage in a restaurant. With some help from food writers Pat Nourse and Joanna Savill, he managed to circumvent the condition, possibly making him the first chef to do so at Francescana, eventually lining up the dates with Bottura’s personal assistant.

“At the time I was of the opinion that Italian food in Sydney was in a lull,” says Orr of his decision to work in Bottura’s kitchen. “I wanted to push it forward and break out of the traditional chains I saw it being held in. I saw the love and passion for it in the Italian chefs I worked for in Sydney. Not being Italian, I also thought there was more room to bend and maybe even break the rules. I wanted to do this in a fine dining setting because that’s what was respected and taken seriously at the time in Sydney dining. Francescana was seen as being the epitome of pushing the boundaries of Italian cuisine.”

Unlike Mangan, Adey and Orr, staging was Kyle Millar’s introduction to the industry. The MasterChef Australia alum is one of the blockbuster show’s cohort who has managed to parlay the experience into a kitchen career. Millar counts three months at Melbourne patisserie Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio, 10 months at Spanish juggernaut Mugaritz and, most recently, three months at Dan Barber’s New York establishment Blue Hill at Stone Barns as the staging opportunities that facilitated her transition. The choice of restaurants were mostly the result of “accidental discovery” she says.

Long fascinated by the creativity behind Burch & Purchese’s desserts, Millar took the opportunity to apply for a stage after meeting Darren Purchese while filming MasterChef. Through Purchese’s connections, she was linked up with chefs working in the R&D department at Mugaritz. “I was headed over to Europe on holiday and was going to pop into the restaurant for a few weeks,” recounts Millar. “The first day I fell in love with the place — working garden; local farmers, fisherman and hunters bringing fresh produce daily, and, to top it off, the passion for Spanish gastronomy and innovation really sang to me.” She missed the cut off for intern applications that year, but submitted the required paperwork and returned the following season.

Millar went on to work at Attica, where she was tasked with looking after the garden and organising the logistics around receiving and planting seeds. Coincidentally, Barber had just launched Row 7 Seed Company, and the Melbourne restaurant was on the list of international kitchens to get their hands on some of the bounty. “The more I learned about the seeds, the more I became interested in Blue Hill and its philosophy,” says Millar.

Millar secured the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award in 2018 and the timing coincided with a staging opportunity at Blue Hill. Yes, all three, as well as Mangan, staged at highly lauded venues alongside chefs who are recognised as leaders of the culinary world. But there’s a more important commonality — the choice of venue was driven not by accolades, but by an interest in the ethos behind a venue’s reputation for innovation.

It’s an attitude Mangan considers necessary for a successful stage and one he communicates to the winners of the Appetite for Excellence Young Chef & Young Waiter awards when they decide where to stage. The best choice depends on the individual: this year’s Young Chef winner Bianca Johnston was originally eyeing off California restaurant Chez Panisse before Mugaritz was put on the board. “Chez Panisse really suits her style, but we’re not sure where she’s headed yet,” says Mangan. “Wherever she wants to go, we’ll support her and tell her what to look out for.”

Mugaritz is a popular choice — something it’s come under fire for, with accusations it, along with a number of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, can only perform at such a high level on the back of labour from unpaid internships. Although Millar attaches significance to each of her stints at top 50 restaurants, including Mugaritz, she cautions against choosing one for a stage based on its position on a list. “It’s great to say you’ve staged in a top 50 restaurant, but if it doesn’t resonate with your idea of cooking or your skill set, and the only reason is because of its accolades or prizes, you should consider if it’s the right place for you,” says Millar.

Orr agrees: “If you want to do a stage, I’d advise staying away from the big names where you aren’t going to get much experience. Staging is about learning and that should always be your aim; it shouldn’t be to get a name on your resume.”

The experience of staging is no doubt quite different for front-of-house professionals. It’s historically been less common, according to Adey, who suspects her request took Harris Plane by surprise. “It certainly wasn’t common when I was [at Attica],” she says. However, her advice strikes a similar chord to that of the chefs — it’s not about resume building as much as it is about expanding your horizons.

“Look at it as an opportunity to step out of your comfort zone,” says Adey. “Work in places unlike where you’re working now and where you’ve worked previously.”

Once you’re in, what can you expect? Adey spent her first week at Attica as a food runner and the second working a section with the assistant manager. Across her staging experience, Millar says tasks ranged “from picking herbs and sorting out tiny vegetables to breaking down and cooking large yellow fin and txuleta [a Basque steak pronounced choo-letah]”.

Orr spent most of his time in the Francescana prep kitchen with sous chef Yoji Tokuyoshi, who now owns Ristorante Tokuyoshi in Milan, doing basic tasks.

“You do the basic stuff,” agrees Mangan. “But that’s what you have to expect. I think it’s more about watching, listening and seeing what goes on. It can be a daunting process; you sort of just rock up to a new kitchen — with a different language in some places — and it’s all about keeping your head down. Ask questions when you need to and try to suck out as much information as you can in a short period.”

Adey says her time at Attica was incredible, even if it meant taking a ‘step back’ in terms of responsibility. “My first couple of shifts I ran food to the table,” she says. “I think it’s one of the most important roles in a restaurant. You get to see the food and how the kitchen works; you can ask questions about how they’re plating and you get to see the whole process rather than just the finished product when it hits the table.”

Combined with her time working a section, Adey walked away from the experience with an understanding of Attica’s systems which ensured the plating of each course is perfectly timed and called away. While the processes can’t be replicated in all settings, the importance of teamwork when it comes to nailing service was driven home. “The way back and front of house work together means they’re able to deliver the product in the way that they do,” says Adey.

At Osteria Francescana, it was team cohesion that stood out to Orr as well. Bottura didn’t take kindly to the chef’s lack of Italian language skills, which led to a less-than-friendly relationship between the pair, but Orr was nonetheless impressed with the culture. “The staff all lived, worked and hung out together, feeling like a family,” he recounts. “There was no beef between front of house and back of house, which was rare at the time. I feel like I’ve carried that feeling into my restaurants.”

While picking herbs and breaking down fish are often regarded as remedial jobs, Millar was grateful for insight into day-today operations. “From those experiences, I learned to appreciate every job that needs to get done in the kitchen,” she says. “Picking herbs might seem mundane, but it put in perspective that every little job is a link in a large chain that helps a kitchen and restaurant run smoothly.”

It made sense for Millar to learn this way. “I didn’t go to cooking school or do an apprenticeship, but I learnt a lot by staging and having great mentors at these restaurants.”

A stage can also help young professionals develop a cooking philosophy. “Being located on a farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns really opened my eyes to sustainable farming practices and consider the impact chefs have on how the general public eats and essentially what farmers grow,” says Millar.

Already familiar with many modern Italian techniques and used to accessing high-quality Australian produce, Orr was appreciative of the chance to see how dishes were developed. “It was more about the story each dish told,” he says. “I learned how to see a dish’s evolution, the journey it took from conception to plate and that inspiration can come from anywhere.”

On the other hand, it can be just as valuable discovering what you don’t want. Orr realised he didn’t want to work in a fine dining environment, for example. “I wanted to have fun, I wanted work–life balance, I wanted to be loose and casual,” he says. “Showing me what I didn’t want to do was the most important thing I took from my stage. I don’t think Duke or ACME would have been the special places they were without doing that stage.”

That means it’s all worth it, right? Orr has the last word: “Staging is a tricky one. Is it exploitative? I think it can be. But when done right, it provides experience you couldn’t otherwise get. It can teach you a lot about your abilities and inform the path your career takes. Learning about yourself and the kind of environment you want to work in is extremely important.”