After Pastry School – Stages & Internships

Having mentioned stages and internships in several prior posts it seemed like a good idea to delve into the topic in a bit more detail.  I’ll start with stages and the official (aka Wikipedia) definition:

Staging is an unpaid internship when a cook or chef works briefly, for free, in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. The term originates from the French word stagiaire meaning trainee, apprentice or intern.[1] The French term commis is often used interchangeably with the aforementioned terms.[2] The individual completing this activity is referred to as a stage, stagiaire (pronounced “stazhje”; IPA: /sta.ʒjɛ:ʁ/), commis (assistant chef) or volontaire (volunteer).

Before the advent of modern culinary schools, young cooks learned their craft as unpaid apprentices in professional restaurant kitchens and bakeries (and other food preparation establishments: pastry shops/patisserie, butcher shops/boucherie, candy shops/confisserie, hotels, etc.) under the guidance of a mentoring chef. This practice has become less common in recent decades.[3]

Staging is similar to trialling in professional kitchens. Trialling is an activity often used to assess the skills and training of a cooking job candidate. The hiring chef might assess the trial cook’s adaptive skills in the new kitchen and how they interact with other staff in the restaurant. When a culinary student or cook-in-training is seeking an internship, often the trial is the next step after the interview.

I think that definition pretty much covers what I would have said, except that in my experience the term “stage” is usually used in place of “trail” for the kitchen part of an interview.

As stated above, staging is unpaid and can be a learning/training experience, a method by which an employer can assess your skills/abilities or a way for you to determine whether or not you are a good fit for a particular kitchen.  Stages usually last from a few hours to a couple of shifts per week for a few months.  That stages are unpaid is one of the unfair economic realities of working in the food industry.  It is hard to imagine someone working several days/shifts at an accounting firm, Walmart or consumer goods manufacturer for free.  However, there is an upside to the informality of staging, short duration and no pay means little or no commitment by either party. This can be a huge plus if you discover that a particular kitchen is not somewhere you want to stay.  Unsanitary conditions, unsafe work practices, over-the-top sexism, uncommunicative bosses and crazy owners are just some of the things you can encounter during a stage and having the ability to walk away saves both parties awkward conversations and bad feelings.  Stages can also be wonderful opportunities to work with chefs you admire, learn new techniques and experience different kitchen environments without having to switch jobs, move or make a long term commitment.  I have done stages at four different places over the past several years.  The longest of which was the Sunday Doughnut Bar at 62 Restaurant & Bar in Salem.  I learned a tremendous amount and really enjoyed the experience.  I’m hoping to do more stages this fall, focusing on some areas I’d like to get more training in such as chocolate, cake decorating, sugar work and catering.

I’ve read this blog post by Shuna Lydon many, many times.  It is EXCELLENT and even now that I’m in the industry I reread it to remind myself of what I should and shouldn’t be doing in a professional kitchen.  Right now, I need to concentrate more on taking notes, especially at the end of the week:

STAGIAIRE ADVICE

Another great blog post about a stage experience is here:

WORKING AT MOMOFUKU MILK BAR

Kendall Vanderslice is one of my fabulous & fun coworkers at Sofra Bakery & cafe!

Everyone knows what an internship is and kitchen internships are, in 2015, very similar to internships in other industries meaning that they are a specific duration (6 weeks to 6 months) and paid.  The duration, hours per week and pay vary wildly by place, in the kitchen and out.  Unpaid internships are rare, but only because there has been some highly publicized push back in media in the past few years over unfair labor practices and liability over having people in the workplace that are not actually employees.  At this point in my short (and illustrious?) pastry career I have done three internships.  The first was a three month, unpaid, 20 hour per week position at Flour Bakery (Fort Point location) while I was still working in the corporate world.  This was my first exposure to a large, full-scale commercial baking operation and a tremendous experience.  The things I learned over the three months I was at Flour have proven to be invaluable to starting a career in pastry and baking, from how to move around in busy kitchen and kitchen terminology to the best way to peel overripe bananas and how to be sure I have all my mise en place before starting a recipe.

My second internship was during school at a large, well-known restaurant in the Seaport district.  The experience was what us old folks call a “mixed bag”.  The people I worked with, for the most part, were great, willing to answer my million questions and share their culinary knowledge.  I got some good practice at mixing batters and dough, rolling dough, making sauces and other components of plated desserts.  The downside was that I did not get nearly as much production time as I had expected based on the conversations I had with my manager during the hiring process and a lot more plating time than I would have liked.  Plating shifts are fast-paced, late nights and once you are familiar with the desserts not a huge learning opportunity.  Every job is a learning experience, you always take something with you when you go, and I appreciated the skills I was able to refine during my time there.

In mid-May I started my third internship at Sofra Bakery & Cafe in Cambridge.  I love it.  Sofra is an amazing place, the food and the people.  Executive Pastry Chef Maura Kilpatrick, a 2015 James Beard Nominee, is co-owner with Chef Ana Sortun of Oleana, where Maura is also the Executive Pastry Chef.    Maura is so incredibly talented and generous with her knowledge and techniques.  Together with her Head Baker, Emily, they have brought together a very strong team, created a wonderful learning environment and produce some of the best pastries in the Boston area.  Sofra has two sides, savory and sweet, and while I’m on the sweet side the savory crew is fabulous as well and serves delicious, flavorful breakfasts and lunches.  We make an astounding amount of product for the amount of space we have and are so, so busy cooking and baking for the cafe, Copley Farmer’s Market and catering orders for private homes, schools and businesses.  It can get very crowded, hot and a bit frantic in the kitchen from time to time but it is one of those rare places where people keep their sense of humor and maintain a level of professionalism that makes it bearable, enjoyable even.

Now that I have finished school and two other internships, I feel like I am actually able to be a contributing member of the team at Sofra; weighing, mixing, shaping, and doing prep work independently. I still look for guidance and ask (too many) questions but I’m starting to feel like a real life pastry chef/baker in training!  My biggest challenges are working faster and remembering all the various techniques for the recipes including mixer speeds, disher sizes and mixing times.  All of those things will hopefully come with practice.

Sofra will be my last internship.  I’ve arrived at a point where I feel that I’ve gotten comfortable and skilled enough in the kitchen that my next position would be as a regular, paid employee.  I’ll continue to learn and grow, as I would in any profession, and stages along with continuing education classes, will definitely be a part of my future.  Internships are something I would highly recommend to those contemplating or starting out in the food industry.  You can learn, spend time in the kitchen and make a little money. Then, join the team as a regular employee, go to school or move onto the next new and exciting endeavor.

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