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Stages: How young chefs find their way into the top kitchens

11 September 2008 by

16-year-old Bradley Johnston was rewarded for winning the recent FutureChef competition with work experience alongside two-Michelin-starred David Everitt-Matthias. Tom Vaughan looks at what he learnt, and at how other young chefs go about finding a stage in some of the world's top kitchens

When Bradley Johnston walked through the doors of David Everitt-Matthias's Le Champignon Sauvage for a week's stage - his prize for winning FutureChef - it was the first step on what judges at the competition predicted would be a highly successful career.

"His grasp of taste and seasoning is strong," says Everitt-Matthias, who acted as one of the competition judges, as well as providing Johnston with that week-long stay in his kitchen. "Even if something doesn't look good, if it tastes good that's the most important thing. You can learn how to plate up but you can't learn how to taste."

Yet Johnston admits that he wasn't aware of the renown of Cheltenham's Le Champignon Sauvage at first. Normally used to just helping send out starters and desserts at Belfast's Café Vaudeville, he moved across the sections in Everitt-Matthias's kitchen, lending his hand to butchery, amuse bouches and garnishes.

"I immediately noticed the way he used every bit of the ingredient," Johnston says. "I've gone through his book since and learnt loads about the wild food he uses, too - things I've always wanted to experiment with myself."

It's just the beginning for Johnston, who, after his studies, intends to find out more about food across Europe. "I want to get used to other types of food and cooking - France, Germany, Italy - and bring it back to Belfast, hopefully in order to run my own place by the time I'm 30."

The next stop for Johnston, he hopes, is Claridge's - he has applied for work experience this coming Easter. Yet for those who haven't won a competition, or lack a well-travelled head chef to call upon for contacts, setting up and completing a stage can seem daunting. So what are the pitfalls those looking for experience in a top kitchen will face?

Setting up and choosing your stage

"Yes, holidays are time off for chefs, and yes, they can be precious, but you've got to sacrifice something if you want to keep evolving," says Stevie McLaughlin, head chef of Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Perthshire. "To be a part of another kitchen, to see what they are doing and bring it back to your own place is a priceless opportunity."

Unless your employer is willing to include a stage as part of your working year, then you'll have to sacrifice time normally spent sunning yourself on a beach. Approach your head chef to discuss where you would like to work a stage, or ask for recommendations or contacts. Often your head chef will be able to suggest kitchens that best address certain under-developed skills.

"I don't send my guys to the top five or six chefs that have already made it," says Jason Atherton, executive chef at Maze, in London, "but to the five or six who are still striving to be recognised as the best. I want them to go somewhere where the chef will be behind the stove. Someone like Rene Redzepi at Noma, or Carlo Cracco at Cracco Peck will be able to offer so much more."

So think about whether the chef you want to work with will actually be there cooking while you work your unpaid time. Read the guidebooks to hunt out respected restaurateurs, and think about who you would really like to work for full-time. Most top-end restaurants have a diary of stagieres.

Your employers might help out with costs, but if not look for somewhere to stay that doesn't cost too much. When McLaughlin took on work experience at the three-star Chez Nico in London, "I was staying in some hostel for £6 a night that wasn't that nice, but you forget all that in time and you remember the experience of the stage," he insists.

Setting up foreign trips are also about perseverance and cost-cutting. Jason Atherton found his way into a stage at Spain's El Bulli, just by not giving up (see left).

Don't be concerned if your work is well below the standard of your intended stage. "When chefs come into our kitchen from other Michelin-starred kitchens they expect a bit of kudos and they are afforded it like everyone else is," says John Campbell, executive chef of the Vineyard at Stockcross. "But it's invariably the ones who aren't from such kitchens that have the real passion and hunger. Everyone deserves their lucky break, and you can see the ones that really want it and the chefs who are just in the kitchen biding their time."

Marco Pierre White's advice to a young Jason Atherton still stands. The great man told him, many years ago: "You're not a doctor, and you're not going to save the world. But you have your head and your hands, and the more knowledge you soak up, the more valuable your hands become."

How to behave on your stage

It goes without saying that you shouldn't act like you're the head chef, or flick prawns at the pastry section. But whatever competition you have won or whatever the accolades your kitchen has picked up, you mustn't expect to be clapped in on the first day of a stage, either. In other words, be humble. "You've got to show enthusiasm - and be grateful," says Atherton. "Someone has opened his or her kitchen to you for a week or more, so respect that."

Ask as many questions as possible at times when the kitchen isn't snowed under. Ask them if they need help after your stage, or if they have another restaurant you could work in. "There are a million questions you could ask, so ask them," Atherton says.

And while the days of stagieres being placed in the corner to peel shallots for a week are thankfully a thing of the past, don't be dejected at being asked to do the odd menial job, says Matthew Tomkinson, head chef at the Montagu Arms in Beaulieu, Hampshire, who as Roux Scholar spent three months at Michel Guérard's three-star restaurant in France. "Try and earn respect in everything you do. There's a lot of crappy jobs that might land at your feet but it's the stagieres who do the rubbish ones well that'll get the better jobs later on."

Carry out work experience for your own learning, too, not just to tick off another name on the CV. "Chez Nico made me realise where I wanted to be - I'd never seen anything like that before," McLaughlin says. "It doesn't matter if you've been to the world's best restaurant on a stage: if you can't cook that doesn't mean diddly squat to an employer."

And one final word of warning for the assiduous note-taker: don't waste your time trying to write down recipes during service. "Firstly you'll use up precious time and secondly you'll probably write them down wrong," Campbell says. "Remember the recipes you would like, and request them at the end of the stage."

Language and loneliness - coping with the stage

A few weeks in an alien kitchen among people you don't know (and maybe speaking in a language you can't understand) can be difficult. But it's vital to keep an eye on the long-term goal. "It can be lonely," Atherton says. "But you have to keep reminding yourself that you wanted this, and that you put yourself in this position, and that there are many young chefs who would kill to be in your position."

"It can be quite a lonely, hard experience at times," Tomkinson says, "and you could mope around and think ‘I want to go home', or you could extract as much from it as possible. Go in to the restaurant on your days off, or if the chef has other restaurants work in those in your day off. You're only there for a short period of time, so treat it preciously."

"If you are in a foreign country then immerse yourself in the culture and the food," Atherton says. "And commit yourself to the restaurant if you have no social life during your time out there."

And remember that if you are lonely or finding it hard, it's only temporary, and even if you don't learn as much as you hoped, the experience will only make you stronger. "You need to try a different way of living - on the breadline - once or twice in your life," says Atherton. "To appreciate what you've got, it's important to have had nothing."

Learning and looking back on a stage

What you will take from a stage will vary from chef to chef, from restaurant to restaurant. Maybe it'll be a place to work, maybe just somewhere to pick up an interesting new garnish, or perhaps even a whole new culinary identity.

Even our FutureChef mentor David Everitt-Matthias had to walk through the doors of a kitchen to carry out work experience himself once upon a time. When he entered La Tante Claire in 1982 for a month's stage, he couldn't have expected the four weeks to resonate as they have.

"It was one of the biggest influences of my career," he says. "I took away Pierre Koffmann's use of produce and the idea that you can make something out of lesser-known ingredients. Even pigs' trotters can be turned into an amazing dish." You can see the effect of that formative month with Koffmann today in Everitt-Matthias's mixing of buds and pigs' tails into two-Michelin-starred cuisine.

And sometimes the stage provides even more than cooking ideas. "It really changed the way I saw myself," says Tomkinson, who was at one-Michelin-starred Ockenden Manor at the time. "I came back brimming with confidence after my stage. I saw what they were doing in a three-Michelin-star French restaurant wasn't that far off what we were producing. And some things we were actually doing better. It showed me that those three-star guys were human as well."

The employer's view of the stage

The stage is often seen as largely for the benefit of the stagiere, but employers can benefit from them, too. "It creates an excitement in my staff," Atherton says. "Chefs can spend so much time in their own kitchen that they sometimes see it in a negative light. Sending them out to another restaurant is a refresher for them, and can breed fantastic loyalty."

"It can often be the case that chefs see the grass as greener on the other side," says Michael Caines, executive chef at Gidleigh Park, in Devon. "Getting them into another kitchen shows that where they work is as good as anywhere else."

As for those work experience chefs that come in to your own kitchen, try to plan a course of work for them, rather than leaving all the worst jobs for them to complete. "Handing stage chefs the nothing tasks is just downright rude," Caines says. "They've given up their time to learn from you and you should respect that. Don't forget: they'll go out into the industry and talk about your restaurant."

Everitt-Matthias allowed FutureChef winner Johnston to work across the sections at Le Champignon Sauvage, on butchery, helping with main courses, turning out garnishes and sending out amuse bouches.

If a stage is conducted properly, then it's not just the workload at your restaurant, or the development of the chef you are helping, but the industry as a whole. "If I can breed confidence in the guys that come into my kitchen and the guys I send out on stages then in 10-15 years the industry is going to be a much better place," Atherton says.

And the final lesson for stagieres? Any step out of the norm is scary, but only by pushing yourself can you learn. "The doubts you have will show it was the right decision," Tomkinson says. "It means you're out of your comfort zone. You look back and, however hard it was at the time, see it as one of the best things you could have ever done."

Jason Atherton at El Bulli

A lesson in pure perseverance, Jason Atherton's stage at Spain's El Bulli restaurant in 1998 came about after months of harrying, leading up to one final gamble. After translating several letters to chef-patron Ferran Adrià into Spanish and getting no response, Atherton bought a ticket to Barcelona, found transport to the nearby Rosas and cycled over the mountain to El Bulli.

Face to face with Adria he implored him for any form of stage. "I begged and begged and begged until eventually he gave in," says Atherton. "At first he didn't want to take me because I didn't speak the language but I said I'd do anything, I'd wash the plates, mop the floor, make his bed - anything - just to stand in his kitchen for a season and see what went on."

Impressed by his persistence, Adria let him into his kitchen, and Atherton became the first ever British chef to complete a stage there. A decade on, the affects are still evident in the tapas-style cuisine at Atherton's London restaurant, Maze.

FutureChef

Now in its ninth year, FutureChef is based on a four-stage, nationwide competition to help people aged between 12 and 16 learn about food and professional cooking. The scheme was set up after research by careers organisation Springboard found that while children rated chefs such as James Martin and Gary Rhodes among their celebrity heroes, they hadn't considered a career as a chef.

FutureChef trains young people in the kitchen, developing their skills and giving them the opportunity to gain direct industry work experience, opening them up to career-related opportunities. Participants are involved in the competition from school heats through local and regional finals, with the national final taking place in London.

David Everitt-Matthias, the Ritz's John Williams and Giles Thompson (former executive head chef at the Ritz) made up this year's judging panel, and there were 7,087 entrants from 583 schools in the UK. Bradley Johnston, from Strangford College in County Down, won £500, courtesy of City & Guilds a week's work experience at David Everitt-Matthias's restaurant, courtesy of David and Fairy by P&G Professional two tickets for the Bunzl Lockhart corporate box at Arsenal FC's Emirates stadium and a Center Parcs mid-week or weekend break. The runner-up was Jonathan Hotchkiss, 16, from Arden School in the West Midlands.

FutureChef chairman Brian Turner, commented: "These young people are going to be the stars of the future in the restaurant industry. The enthusiasm, dedication and talent each year is mind blowing."

Watch a chef masterclass with David Everitt-Matthias here >>

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