A Day In the Life of a Stage
I just finished up a three month stage (internship) at Manresa, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Los Gatos, California. When I talk to friends or acquaintances and they ask “how’s your job going?” I answer with the obligatory, “it’s great!” but without giving much detail. It’s hard to describe in a couple sentences what working in a restaurant of this caliber is like, especially to those who have never had exposure to the style of food. This post is probably more for those people who have never been in the industry before and are interested in understanding what an internship (or stage) in a fancy-ass restaurant is like.
First a little about Manresa. Located in Los Gatos, California, Chef David Kinch just received his third Michelin star this year (don’t know what the Michelin system is? Check it out. Spark note - it’s super prestigious to have 3 stars). Their cuisine is focused on a sense of place. It’s very labor intensive, creative and beautiful.
If you’re in the industry, skip ahead. This next part is a quick low-down on kitchens and how they’re organized, for those who don’t know.
In general, fine-dining kitchens are organized in the French brigade system (link here). There’s an Executive Chef who is the top of the food chain. They are the visionary, the person who is the face of the restaurant. Under them is the Chef de Cuisine (CDC) that runs the kitchen, designs menus, and actually carries out the vision (all with direction from the Exec Chef). Under that is a sous chef, who helps with management, such as ordering and menu experimenting, but also bounces around where extra hands are needed. Then there are the chefs de partie. Each of them is in charge of a station. Stations are generally split into amuse/canapes (tiny appetizers before the meal), garde manger (cold appetizers/salads), entremetier (vegetable dishes, soups, things without fish or meat), fish, meat, and saucier. Pastry is it’s own separate thing, generally speaking. Below the chefs de partie are commis (chefs-in-training), stages (interns) and dishwashers. Depending on the kitchen, there may be many people working one station, with several chefs de partie and commis.
At Manresa, the kitchen is fairly small. There are eight chefs de partie, one sous chef, two junior sous chefs, and one chef de cuisine. They generally have at least one stage at any one time, but not necessarily. As I’m writing this, I have been 1 of 3-4 stages for the past month. The kitchen is split into 2 sides.
My main job as a stage is to help all the chefs de parties get their mise en place (link) ready for service every day. What follows is a pretty exhaustive and detailed (feel free to skim) timeline of what I did as a stage about a month into my time there. By the end of my 3 months, some of my duties had changed, but this is pretty typical.
10:45 - I walk in the door. None of us are allowed in the kitchen before 11am or after noon. Generally, as a stage, I try to be there as early as I can (without getting told of by the morning junior sous chef). I arrive already in my uniform and put my personal stuff away in my locker. I grab a chefs jacket, apron, and towels. Then I head to the kitchen.
10:50 - I set up my station with a cutting board, my knives, and my bain (a container with my spoons, tweezers and tiny offset spatula). I set up our labeling tape dispenser and grab a stack of c-fold paper towels and make sure everything’s in place so I’m ready. Then I check my prep list. It’s always written the night before, so I usually walk in with a plan of how to tackle my list most efficiently, but inevitably something will be added or changed, so I have to be ready to adjust on the fly.
11:00 - Break out the juicer - I’m juicing corn for the amuse station. This requires me to husk 10 ears, cut the kernels off the cob and put it through a juicer. I give the juice to the chef (who makes little gel balls that go into a corn bao, more on that later).
11:25 - I clean, because I’ve made a huge mess with the corn. I wipe down the machine, take it apart and scrub the individual pieces, dry it, and put it back together and away. Then I wipe down my cutting board, knife and station, making sure there aren’t any corn filaments or kernels anywhere. It is essential that everything is neat and tidy all the time.
11:30 - I sweep. Every 30 minutes the whole kitchen is swept by the stages. We take turns, passing around the timer to remind us.
11:35 - Break out the slicer, like the ones you see behind the deli counter at a grocery store. I take frozen lardo (link) and slice it super thin, laying it onto 6” x 6” sheets that will eventually be cut into 4 equal-sized squares. These thin sheets lay over a squash stir fry and melts to create a yummy layer of fat. This job takes me a while because as the lard warms up, it melts and becomes harder to work with. I try to work quickly, touching the lard as little as possible and working in batches, putting the finished sheets into the freezer.
12:15 - I clean again. I scrub down the machine, send parts through the dish machine, and make sure there isn’t any fat left on the slicer.
12:35 - I brunoise serrano ham. Again, I have to work in batches. I sliced a bunch of ham on a previous day and froze it. Then I can cut the ham into batons while it’s still frozen to get clean lines. If it’s thawed it take so much longer, and the ham isn’t the perfect little cubes that we want. I cut batons first and put them back in the freezer. Then I go back and brunoise. I label and put it away. Everything has to be labeled with tape that is cut properly. No tearing.
12:55 - It’s time to peel tomatoes. The chefs de partie blanch about 20 large heirloom tomatoes, 40 large cherry tomatoes and 200 small cherry tomatoes. And then we peel them all. This easily takes up the majority of my time during the day. Luckily there are 2-3 of us doing it. I start by peeling all the large heirlooms, cutting into quarters and removing the seeds and trimming the inside so each quarter becomes an evenly-cut tomato petal, which are cut into batons by a chef. Then I start peeling cherry tomatoes until it’s bao time.
1:15 - The sweep timer makes it back to me. I take 5 minutes to sweep the kitchen.
2:00 - Bao time. Every day I help the amuse chef de partie roll bao. Bao are small ball-shaped steamed buns. If you’ve ever had pork buns at a dim sum place then you get the idea. But instead of pork on the inside, it’s a molten corn puree. The chef makes the dough at the beginning of the day and lets it rise. Then we portion it into 7 or 8 gram pieces. We roll them once, pinching the bottom to create a smooth outside. Then we go back and add the frozen corn ball filling, pinching it more carefully this time and rolling, making sure there are no air bubbles and no holes in the bottom. This is essential, otherwise when the chef goes to steam them the corn gel explodes out and he can’t use it. When it’s a super busy service and he loses bao, it messes everything up. So we make sure everything is done right.
2:45 - I jump back on cherry tomatoes, peeling… peeling… peeling.
3:30 - Break time. And by break I mean 3 of us scrub the floors. One dumps soap water, the next scrubs with a deck brush, the last uses a giant squee-gee. The dumper goes back and mops up the excess water. This happens every day before service.
3:40 - I quickly take a couple minutes to help break down the fish/veg station. We scrub the surfaces, walls and fronts of the low-boys (small refrigerators under station). Then we cover the stainless-steel countertops with mats for service. We set up all our tools, storage containers and organize the area for service. I break off to finish up cherry tomatoes.
3:50 - I cut the large cherry tomatoes in half. Then I portion them into 1/2 pint deli containers so they are easy to grab and heat for service. They adorn a tomato tart.
4:15 - I start on garnishes. Garnishes wait until the last moment so that they don’t wilt. We get flowers delivered every couple days by a farmer. I put them into a small strainer and shake them around, maybe give them a little rinse to get rid of bugs. Then I snip off any stems and pick through the rotten ones. I do this with society garlic, bachelor buttons and chive flowers. Then I pick through opal basil, basil, and shiso and find all the small pretty ones. If I don’t have enough for service, I tear the larger pieces into smaller, nice looking pieces.
4:45 - I take a quick break to eat some staff meal (or eat in between picking leaves), prepared by a member of the kitchen each day, except Wednesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays, one of the front-of-house people does it. Friday, each member of the kitchen has a component to do and we make a meal together.
5:00 - I chiffonade 2 pints of basil, making sure it’s consistent and the leaves all look nice.
5:15 - I trim the large lardo squares and cut them into 4 equal pieces. Then I remove the parchment paper from one side and lay 6 pieces onto a sizzle tray. I wrap with plastic wrap and put in the freezer. This ensures it’s easy to grab for service.
5:30 - Service starts. By now I should have everything on my list done and I’m ready to go. The first guests sit down. I take a moment to read over the list of parties for the evening with dietary restrictions so I know what to expect. Lots of restrictions means it’s going to be a rough night, so I try to have it in my head before we start.
5:45 - By this time the first tables have ordered in. During service I am usually in charge of the very first dish (following the amuse courses). The current menu has 3 amuse courses, followed by one cold course from fish/veg, followed by the “Walk in the Garden” dish, then 3 hot fish/seafood dishes from fish/veg and a gazpacho, and finally 2 meat courses before pastry takes over. Besides mainly preparing the first course, I bounce around on fish/veg, helping the other chefs plate dishes. Since I’ve been there (a little over a month we have only had 2 nights with under 50 covers. Several weekend nights have been between 60 and 65. It can get pretty hairy, serving that many people that many courses within a few hours.
9:15 - Generally by 9:15, all tables have seated and ordered in. Besides the chef on amuse, I am the first one done. At this point I make sure all the utensils and ingredients used for my dish are put away properly. If it’s a busy night, I continue helping on the line, otherwise I jump onto cleaning.
We have a deep clean project every day. Wednesday we wash all the shelves, walls and ceilings above the shelves. Thursday and Sunday we polish coppers. Friday we clean the hoods. Saturday is the only night we don’t have a deep clean. Coppers easily take the longest. We have about 45 copper pieces of some sort. We make a paste out of vinegar, salt and flour and scrub until there are no oxidation spots. They have to be rinsed thoroughly, checked for spots, then saved in hot water until they are ready to dry. If they are not properly rinsed or saved in the water, they oxidize and we have to start over. Since I’m on the line during service, the other stages start scrubbing coppers at 8:30. By the time I’m done, I run over and start to dry and put away all the pieces that are already finished. Drying is another ordeal because if they are not properly dry, they will oxidize and we have to do it again. First I dry with one rag (which becomes my wet one), then I dry again with a completely dry one. I give them one final check over before I put them away, otherwise I have to pass them back to the other stages to scrub again.
10:00 - By this time, most of the fish/veg side dishes are out and I can start cleaning bottles that hold various sauces, oils and stocks for service. The other stages continue coppers as I wash out bottles and caps and refill oils. Sometimes I’ll help to bag and vacuum seal fish or meat that the chefs are done with or put sauces away before jumping back on drying coppers.
10:30 - Once all savory dishes are out, I quickly polish the outside of the hoods before continuing to dry coppers and hang them up. I’ll also help scrub down all the mats that protect the counter tops and scrub everything down.
11:00 - Coppers are done! We also have to scrub the floor drains and pour bleach water down them, make sure all the bains and tools are washed, and all bottles on both sides are clean. Then we can start buffing. We use green scrub pads and buff out the top of the stainless steel prep areas. This makes all the surfaces look almost like mirrors. Then we polish the fronts of all the low boy refrigerators and the outside of the ovens and top of the french top.
11:30 - We are mostly done. Some of the chefs are getting some prep done for tomorrow or checking their low-boys to write their own prep lists. We put all the floor drains back together or help the chefs with whatever they need to do before they go home. One of us will go and grab leftover staff meal.
11:45 - We have a quick stand-up meeting where we all eat a little staff meal and discuss what’s coming up the following day. Chefs make a list for the farmers market (the CDC or sous chef will go in the morning and bring back lots of fresh stuff) and write the prep lists for stages. Before I head out, I look at my list and start planning out my day. On a good night, we leave by midnight.