The life of the stage isn’t pretty. In fact at times, it gets downright grimey.
For both the restaurant and the stage.
For the stages themselves, you can spend years upon years busting your ass from the ground up in the nicest restaurants you can manage to shimmy your way into, only to be stuck with the most menial, nerve-pinching, and patience-testing jobs in the world. Chef Kobe was telling us how he got stuck juicing pea leaves or something when he took a trip to Manresa this past summer and staged for a day. The whole perspective of being in a new country and in a new kitchen with new equipment threw him off so much that one of the cooks came up to him while he was doing the job to ask him if how long he’d been in the business, as if this was his first job out of culinary school. So needless to say, flipping a world on its head can ruffle even the most talented of chefs.
For the restaurant, a single stage can nearly throw off an entire service, not to mention cost you a lot of money. I once remember asking a stage to strain the veal stock only to come back to a bin of cooked meat, bones, and mirepoix next to the sink where he’d dumped the stock. It was a fun task trying to figure out how to get through the day without veal stock. And here in Dranouter, I can only imagine what it costs the restaurant to have us here, feed us, and house us. It can’t be cheap.
At In de Wulf, I try to take these rugged tasks at hand with enthusiasm. It’s a lot of grunt work. Shucking oysters, which I’ve never been great at, has become a time test for me. Working with new ingredients such as fjord shrimp that are about the size of a penny and whelks, which are sea snails have been extremely interesting as I try to figure out the best way to process them. It’s taken me a couple weeks, but I think I’ve finally gotten down my favorite technique. But in the end most of these jobs are busywork; jobs that need more nimble fingers and enthusiasm rather than trained technique.
So why stage? So why have stages? It costs the stage time, and the places of stages money.
Stages and staging are tools of refinement.
I know that when I walked into In de Wulf and when I will walk into AOC and Geranium, I’ll be lucky if I ever sniff the cook’s line during service time. I’ve been very lucky to get to plate up alongside Kobe and the cooks during service, but I knew that I would be doing a lot of picking of herbs, punching out of little garnishes, and all those little tasks that make the machine run a little smoother. There would be a lot of doing the “little things” that make a starred restaurant, a starred restaurant. But to stage, for me is to refine my ideals as a cook and hopefully one day a chef. Seeing another man’s kitchen and listening to their their thoughts and watching their techniques and how they work and treat different products really makes you think about how you want to run your kitchen and how you treat your food, staff, and service one day. While I may not have learned any brand-smashing new techniques here, there are things I that I see that I’ll most likely use for the rest of my life in my repertoire from here. One of those being on how they treat the sepia (large squid) and use a technique to really get to the point of the product’s texture in the dish. And as much as always felt the restaurants around me were like family, the setting here where the cooks, the chef, and the staff almost *are* family just solidifies that.
For the restaurants?
For many restaurants that strive for Michelin-starred style dining, it just isn’t possible to heavily refine your food with only paid cooks. I can only imagine what it would cost In de Wulf to even just have a young cook come in to do the job that the stages come here and do. The menu with the more finite techniques and probably more of the interesting dishes would have to be heavily edited to do less menial work. And lets not even start talking about the foraging and cleaning of all the garnishes. Remember rooting around the woods when you were a kid looking for three leaf clovers? Imagine that except it’s a group of grumpy guys, probably hung over, cold, and tired from their previous 16 hour day. Its times like this that I remember a Yelp post back from my Ubuntu days about this guy complaining that, “a plate of beets, even one a pretty as this one, should never cost 11 dollars” when it was a plate of tiny forono beets that only grow to be about the size of a golfball, and took the cooks and stages probably half the day just to clean from the ground, roast perfectly, and peel. It only goes to show you, the cost of food is a lot. 12 dollars (and that’s being generous) an hour and a lot of patience. I can’t think of many other industries that look down at you if you don’t do at least a little work for free.
So remember, people: before you start complaining about how expensive high end food is, remember you’re also probably paying for a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
One more week here. Thank you to In de Wulf for treating even the little guys like they matter.