When she was in her early 20s, Laura Ozyilmaz scored a one-year stage at Mugaritz at the height of its influence. She put her education at the Culinary Institute of America on hold, flew to Spain, moved into a house with 30 other stagiaires, and worked for free six days a week. Screaming in the kitchen was common. The pressure to be perfect held the interns in a furious clench. The one staff meal they received each day made Oliver Twist’s orphanage look like a bastion of gluttony.
“I thought it was a huge adventure,” the future co-owner of Noosh in San Francisco says of the year. She was young. She was learning an extraordinary amount. “It shaped me in many different ways,” she adds, noting that she believes the letter of recommendation she earned at the end later helped her land a job at Eleven Madison Park. Yet, she says, “I don’t encourage a stage like I did.”
Doing a stage (pronounced staj, from the French) of a few months is still required for culinary school degrees and de rigueur in the world of haute cuisine, where it introduces stagiaires to the aesthetics and the work ethic of formal French-style kitchens. A few months of prep work at, say, Noma can hoist young cooks onto the shoulders of the restaurant’s fame and carry them far into their new career.
Yet if it’s cooking skills a young cook is looking for, entry-level jobs aren’t hard to get, not when chefs in every major city complain of labor shortages. Even as the U.S. government cracks down on unpaid internships, many chefs say cooking for free still provides valuable training, perhaps even more valuable than culinary school.
Even pro-stage chefs offer one critical piece of advice: Where you stage matters — and a restaurant’s acclaim shouldn’t be the deciding factor.
Claudia Martinez, pastry chef at Tiny Lou’s in Atlanta and a 2019 Eater Young Gun, has seen the worst and the best sides of staging. Cooks at the restaurant where she did her Johnson & Wales externship harassed her for being young, female, and Latina, and Martinez had to complain to their supervisors. (Unlike other female chefs who reported seeing or experiencing sexual harassment during their stages, Martinez said the restaurant quickly intervened. She declined to name it for this article.)
That was the bad stage. Another changed the course of her career: After spending several years on the savory side of the kitchen, she DMed David Vidal, a pastry chef in Sweden whose intricate desserts she obsessed over on Instagram, and asked if she could work with him for free. He invited her to to stage at the Laholmen Hotel in Sweden for a month, created a regimen to teach her pastry basics, and, as a final project, collaborated with her on a dessert. She returned to Atlanta charged up.
“If somebody asked me whether they should stage or go to culinary school, do a stage,” Martinez says.
Chefs make a distinction between one-day tryouts when applying for a job and longer-term stages. The former are essential, most argue, and not just so employers can see if a prospective cook can make it in their kitchen. As Eater Young Gun Ashleigh Shanti (’19), chef of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, says, “In the industry now, people are starting to wake up and see that self-care is important, as well as creating safe spaces and allowing people to have a voice. Those are all important to me, and you can’t really gauge where a restaurant is in regards to it unless you spend time there.”
A few stages and externships do pay. Traditionally, they don’t. Living costs during culinary school externships can be folded into student loans (a quandary in itself). Without family support, it’s much harder for people earning line cooks’ wages to save up for a stage, and the logistics of leaving pets and cars and partners behind keep many others from gaining life-changing experience.
Plus, in the United States, unpaid work is officially illegal. The federal Department of Labor has cracked down on unpaid internships that do not explicitly offer educational credit. In 2017, it fined the Willows Inn in Washington $149,000 in fees and back wages for 19 former stages, which made many American restaurants that had relied on free labor revise their practices. According to Willows Inn general manager Reid Johnson, “We still offer internships, but those are strictly available to students enrolled in accredited programs that fall in line with the national government requirements for internships.” Most last a few weeks. Johnson says the restaurant still turns down “dozens” of requests to stage for free.
That said, in other professions, paying thousands of dollars for continuing education is common. Cooks gain theirs by working for free. Two years after Martinez’s return from Sweden, she’s still paying off the plane ticket, rent, and expenses she incurred. Compared to the $80,000 she spent on culinary school, she thinks, the cost was worth it. “Even though I put myself in a financial bind, I wouldn’t go back and change anything,” she says. “You can always pay people back.”
Jon Yao, chef-owner of Kato in Los Angeles, skipped culinary school altogether in favor of staging. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he decided another degree would be too expensive, so he knocked on doors and offered his time. He staged at Alma in Los Angeles for nine months, living at home to save money, then spent another nine months cooking without pay in San Francisco, first prepping ingredients at Benu and later working on the line at Coi. After his savings ran out, he moved back to Los Angeles to help his parents open their restaurant, which soon became Yao’s own.
“Before I planted my feet it was a good way to be in touch with lots of different scenarios,” Yao says. He adds that it suited his learning style. “I feel like staging provides information you couldn’t find online or in cooking school.”
The stereotypical stage — whether culinary school externship or a two-day effort — involves cleaning mushrooms by the bucketful or chopping onions until your eyeballs dissolve.
Levi Raines, a 2019 Eater Young Gun and the chef at Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans, cautions that young cooks, especially, need to look beyond the romance of a stage to consider what they’d get out of the experience.
“They don’t understand [stages] involve a lot of picking herbs and menial tasks that don’t benefit your skill level as a cook,” Raines says. “They can put that on their resume and go around town saying, ‘I worked at Noma,’ but they’re still a terrible cook that has the same skill level they had when they went in.”
That’s not everyone who stages, he’s quick to correct; one of his current sous chefs did the European tour and came back a good cook. Now Raines is teaching him what it takes to actually run a restaurant.
Shanti says she’s actually gotten a lot out of those short stints. “The best stages were the ones where I didn’t feel valuable,” she says. At paid jobs, she works head-down. From a prep table in the back of the kitchen, though, she can study the whole of the operation. “It’s one of those moments as a cook where you can be totally selfish.”
Carlo Lamagna, owner of Magna in Portland, agrees. Even with 15 years under his belt, he staged at the Modernist Cuisine kitchen in Seattle a few years back for kicks. “I think the more experienced you are, the more you get out of it,” Lamagna says. “When you’re a green cook, you don’t see the nuanced things, how they put a piece of meat on a trivet in a particular order, how they set up their station, the tools they use. Or you do see the tools but don’t understand the exactness of everything.”
That’s also why the where of a stage is so important.
In his path from culinary school to restaurants, from Chicago to Portland, and from cooking European-based cuisines to Filipino-American food, Lamagna has interned all over. Some of his best experiences were at smaller venues where the cooks took an interest in him. The most famous, which he won’t name on the record? The vibe was so abusive he quit.
“If a place makes you second-guess yourself, either they’re not treating you well or you’re not cut out for the career,” Lamagna says. “Well, I’m still here. That feeling of degradation that they impose on you — it’s bullshit.”
Sayat Ozyilmaz, Laura Ozyilmaz’s husband and co-chef at Noosh, says that during his time at the Culinary Institute of America, he staged at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for close to a year. He wouldn’t change a single day, he says. Yet he won’t gloss over its intensity: “When they criticize the way you peel onions, fold your towel, tie your shoes, the way you wipe the counter, all of the sudden you find yourself in a vulnerable position of questioning everything you do. Fine dining is built on ripping off your confidence, so you can’t make your own decisions. Then the struggle of getting your footing [builds] it back up.”
Laura Ozyilmaz says she’d never recommend anyone work for free for a year, especially in an environment that could exacerbate anxiety, mental illness, and addiction. But a month or two? That could be valuable to the right person.
“You know how they say it builds character?” Sayat Ozyilmaz adds. “Sometimes you come out a cynical dictator, and sometimes you come out like Laura, who is now trying to do the exact opposite.”
The Ozyilmazes, who met at the Culinary Institute of America, worked in New York four-star restaurantss after graduating and then turned to staging again — this time to build an audience.
In 2016, by way of a honeymoon, the couple spent their wedding gifts on a two-month trip around Mexico and the United States, spending a day or two at 25 different restaurants. They chronicled their travels on the Culinary Institute of America website, also without pay. This was no Mugaritz: With their institutional backing, they received full restaurant tours, were assigned special projects, and even, when one restaurant’s staff was recovering from a party, jumped on the line.
By the end of their travels, 10,000 people followed @lauraandsayat on Instagram. The couple took inspiration from the wide spectrum of food they saw and tasted. Seeing dozens of famous kitchens hustling as hard as they could, often by the seat of their pants, gave the couple the confidence to land in San Francisco and start a pop-up that eventually led to Noosh.
Noosh has one stage at the moment, a midlife career-changer who wants to start catering. Even though the intern entered their kitchen without knowing how to properly hold a knife, she’s willing to work hard. “This is the message we want to get across: We want to teach people how to create their own business,” Laura says.
The Ozyilmazes insist on paying her.
Jonathan Kauffman is a Beard Award-winning writer based in Portland, Oregon, and the author of 2018’s Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat.
AJ Dungo is an illustrator from Los Angeles and has just published his first graphic novel, In Waves.