To Stage Or Not To Stage

stage interview ubiquity group.jpg

QUESTION From Gina in LA:

“I closed my restaurant almost a year ago and have been looking for an exec or sous job for the last four months and tried putting myself out there on Indeed. I got a few calls this week and the guy that owns my old after work spot just mentioned he could use some help too.

Anyway, every one of these guys is asking me to come in on a specific day and “see how it goes” or “do a tasting” for them but none of them have mentioned for how long or whether or not they’re going to pay me. I don’t mind working a one or two hour long stage but I don’t want to work a whole day for free or give these guys ideas for their menu so they can just say “thanks have a nice day” and then have their weak-ass line cooks try to put out my dishes.

Do other owners usually expect a full shift as a “tryout” with no pay whatsoever? and if not, what’s a good way to ask if that’s the expectation without sounding petty? … just wondering if I need to take a week long vacation to work for free. I never did that to my tryouts. In fact, I’d ask them up front to do a tasting (app, side sand and entree) after hours or on a slow day for $10/hr (entered as a line cook in payroll) and offer to pay up to $100 for their prep if they wanted to bring their own with a receipt.”

Just wondering how you run tryouts / tastings.”

Gina M.

HH ANSWER:

Although most every chef I know has done an unpaid stage or two back in the day and been reimbursed only with a meal and a beer (or two); these days, the consensus seems to be that more industry scrutiny and watchdogs necessitate having to pay someone even if they’re just there learning or as a “trial shift” / “try-out”.  

An 8+hour stage like you describe is “totally unacceptable” (are you recording this?) and illegal but… that’s not to say it isn’t commonplace - especially in higher end concepts.  

If an employer wants to see you in action in order to see: how you handle yourself on the line / work with other employees / your knife skills / sanitation / food safety / creativity… really basic shit…and don’t want to pay you for it - some may say: “that’s a red flag right there!” but the truth of the matter is it still happens… almost everywhere.

A resume or CV doesn’t tell an Exec Chef anything other than the fact that bringing you in might not be a total and complete waste of time. In fact, more often than not - word of mouth and “friend-of-a-friend” hires are more commonplace than someone who finds staff via indeed or some staffing site like that. 

Your concerns about being blackballed or stigmatized for not wanting to stage are more than justified. In my experience, most chefs (especially the more highly acclaimed ones) will see your presence in their kitchen as an honor - and…if they’re worth the praise they’re getting (or have gotten) so should you.

I spoke to a few friends in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and LA and they are, similarly, all of the opinion that staging is nowhere near dead as well - and that “…if someone bitched about it or called the Dept. of Labor on my ass, I’d make sure everyone in town knew about it. Nobody wants to deal with that kinda shit.”

Not only do high profile chefs have to contend with these sorts of issues for new hires - but two individuals spoke, at some length, about how difficult it is when culinary schools and other non-affiliated programs want to bring kids into the restaurant for educational purposes. “It’s gotten so ridiculously full of paperwork and HR stuff that I just don’t have time for it and can’t risk the potential liability*.”

*(In most places, all work (even trial shifts) must be paid unless it’s for a credit-earning internship for a school. The Dept. of  Labor ( and Labor Ministry in Canada) will field complaints for unfair labor practices like these and don’t mind following up on them.)

In general, the only paid stages I’ve ever seen are when we’ve asked chefs to come in and do a tasting when applying for an Exec or Exec Sous position. In those instances, we’ve given them the option to present 3-4 dishes from our line or to bring their own prep & equip - with the previous understanding that we would reimburse them for the food if they bring in a receipt.

You need to make up your own mind with regard to whether or not an unpaid stage is fair. If you don’t think it is - I would recommend sticking with more “middle of the road” concepts and/or chain / corporate restaurants as an unpaid stage may be emblematic of a more “old school” environment that might not suit you. 

If you’re just not sure whether it’ll be a paid stage or not and are uncomfortable asking, you should simply ask if they’ll need any paperwork filled out before your arrive. 9 times out of 10, a paid stage requires you to be on the payroll and that means you would have had to have completed paperwork / I-(, etc…in order to clock in. If you don’t you should set your expectations accordingly and simply see if they throw you a few bucks or a meal at the end as a Thank You. 

It’s never safe to assume that someone wouldn’t expect you to work for free….but it is safe to assume - right or wrong - that someone would expect you to work for the honor of an opportunity to work along side them…because let’s be honest - sous working in big name restaurants or for big name chefs end up with the “golden ticket” to open their own place with backers who (incorrectly) assume that one person can replicate the success of a carefully assembled and well-directed team.