Chef stagiaires: Career progression or free labour?

A few years ago a mate asked me about doing some chef stages (working for free to gain different/more experiences). ‘Sure’ I said, ‘where were you thinking of?’. Needless to say he was thinking of the Fat Duck in Bray, it was number two in the Worlds 50 Best list at the time, it would look good on his CV and hopefully expose him to the exciting world of avant garde cuisine. He seemed really on board with the idea & could commit to the required three months without pay, that was until I gave him the reality check. The chances of actually seeing the inside of the Fat Duck would be minimal, instead he’d out in an industrial unit in Holyport prepping quail the Fat Duck way, and other menial jobs. Thankfully he changed his mind, and went for a stage with Gordon Ramsay Holdings instead, thoroughly enjoying his stage with Jason Atherton at Maze.

The reason I’ve decided to write about this particular subject is, yet again Noma has made the headlines for the wrong reasons. It has come to light that stagiaires (chefs that are doing a stage) were being threatened with a global blacklist, should they not be able to complete their time at the former World number 1 restaurant.

You can read the full Noma letter here, this draft was written in mid March 2013, a week after Noro-virus outbreak became public:


The fact of the matter is this; places like Noma, el Bulli and Fat Duck etc are more than likely financially dependant on stagiaires. It was rumoured that 4 in 5 chefs at el Bulli was a stagiaire, and it was losing anywhere between 1 & 2 million Euro a year. So just imagine what the wage bill would have looked like if another forty chefs needed to be paid. On top of not being paid, stagiaires are also expected to work a normal day, so at el Bulli that would be either 7am till 9pm or 9am till Midnight; hard to know if this is a breach of the EU work time directive or not. In the cold light of day, without stagiaires, lots of these high end restaurants would cease to function they way they currently do. The economics just don’t stack up

So why do chefs stage? The answer is a relative simple one; it’s about growth and a thirst for knowledge. You can make contacts & friends, so there is a big upside.

Despite Heston Blumenthal (or his PR company, Lotus PR) now proclaiming to be self taught, he actually did a stage at Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons under Raymond Blanc & his Head chef, Marco Pierre White. There is no doubt he took much from the experience as Le Manoir is a well oiled machine; thus quashing this rumour & PR spin as both M. Blanc & Mr White have mentioned this period in Blumenthal’s culinary development in various publications.

Whilst I doubt very much there is an actual blacklist, the culinary world is a very small place indeed. So it wouldn’t take much for word to spread about a stagiaires who “didn’t play the game”. Despite the fact I have tweeted a request for people to come forward (even with the promise of anonymity) and discuss staging at this level, nobody has. Maybe some big names are breathing a sigh of relief?!?

With regards to Noma, they have put this down to an oversight & an individual acting on his own initiative. The fact is this, either the people who own & run Noma are very naive, or they think we are. This document would have passed through several pairs of hands before being implemented; more to the point, it’s yet another bout of negative publicity for the Copenhagen eatery.

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