Tales From the Bottom Rung




1. Professional term in the restaurant industry for voluntary* indentured servitude.

"Periods of my life when I've consumed the most wine: taking care of my dying grandmother, my first stage right after cooking school." - author's personal experience

2. Abbreviation for a person engaging in said activity.

"We go outside and watch videos of cute animals when the stages are being annoying motherfuckers." - a sous chef

*A stage is a graduation requirement for many culinary school students, in which case I guess it's not so voluntary.

Interns seem to be a marginalized group of the workforce across all industries, but particularly so in the restaurant world. As a stage you are a freshly dug latrine getting shat on by everyone else, every day, all the time. It's easier if you've had some work experience before, but each kitchen differs slightly in its rules and etiquette, and if you don't adapt quickly the mountain of shit only presses in on you more tightly, covering your eyes, ears, nose and mouth and making you scared to breathe in case it somehow pisses somebody off. (One rule that's consistent everywhere: always cut the tape, don't tear it. And make sure it's fucking straight). Often these details are not intuitive. Sometimes they might not even make sense, but you keep your head down and do it anyways. 

You are expected to fail and make mistakes, but each time you do you have to work three times as hard to gain back even the tiniest amount of respect because, after all, you should have done it correctly the first time. After that you can bet your superiors will keep an even closer eye on you, interrupting you at every step of the recipe in a slightly resentful manner because doing so takes valuable time away from working on their own projects. It makes you nervous, and even more prone to making mistakes. If you don't show improvement quickly people will start to treat you like you're mentally handicapped. And once you've reached that level of disappointment it's almost impossible to redeem yourself.

Depending on the size of the kitchen, you will probably interact with people from various levels of the hierarchy. They will give you conflicting instructions on how to do the same task, and then get upset with you when it proves impossible to follow all said conflicting instructions. This leads to a small group discussion in which no one will ever concede that they were wrong, but everyone (at least on the surface) eventually agrees on a new, "right" way. Write that down. Got it? Good.

The recipe will probably change again the next time you make it anyways because chef's mind switches faster than the direction of the wind. He will react to your inability to keep up with all the modifications (which, by the way, exist solely in his brain because he's said none of them out loud) with mild surprise, as if to say, "But why aren't you a mindreader?"

It is better to ask questions, even stupid ones - especially stupid ones, than to end up wasting product.

You can never stand still. Your hands must always be doing something. When in doubt, clean.

Being on time is late. Being early pisses off some sous chefs who need their alone time before the whole crew arrives.

Unless the restaurant is part of a hotel, you can expect to work more than 40 hours a week, and not get paid. In exchange for your labor you receive instruction, mentorship, connections and, of course, the recipes. If that doesn't sit will with you, there's the door. Your friends and family will probably not understand why you are subjecting yourself to this. It's easiest just to tell them that you have an internship and let them draw their own conclusions, which undoubtedly involve circumstances much more humane than they actually are.

Some days you will want to cry; if not you aren't being pushed enough. Other days and sleepless nights, you will question your life choices. You may even want to quit, but deep down you know that no matter how hard the work is, you will be so much better when you come out the other side. In fact, you already have gotten better.

Eventually, hopefully, you start to thrive. You live for those moments when chef or a sous tells you that you did a good job; when your coworkers appreciate rather than tolerate your presence. And for all the random, spontaneous times, like excavating the garbage room at 2am in your service whites and watching your sous karate kick a mannequin down the hall, that probably would never sound funny when describing it to someone who wasn't there, but you were, and you remember. Those are all the things that make the stage worth it.