Un été à Paris: Or, how to stage abroad (kinda)

Saturday, Sep 3rd, 2016

There comes a time in every young cook’s life where they start to ask themselves bigger questions. What am I looking to accomplish in this industry? How much longer can I keep pushing myself so hard? What’s the next step? Or, in the case of myself and my friend Jane (also a pastry cook, working in the same restaurant as me at the time)– What if I went and staged in France?

All around us, we saw our fellow pastry cooks pursuing new challenges and began to feel restless. Our previous sous chefs were moving on to pastry chef positions. Former restaurant cooks were making the switch to high-end bakeries– or opening their own. Our friend and ex-coworker (hello, Harry!) decided to take a few months off to travel and stage across Asia. Suddenly, vague discussions of living and working in France changed into something more tangible, until Jane and I found ourselves at a neighborhood bar in Chicago, giddily buying plane tickets to Paris– the pâtisserie capital of the world.

For me, it felt like the perfect punctuation between an extremely formative position at Blackbird and whatever was next to come for me as a pastry cook. For Jane, the motivation was perhaps a bit more straightforward: “I just need to turn 27 in a foreign country.” Our common goal was simple: take some time off from the Chicago pastry scene, stage in a kitchen or two in France, and come back to the States with a better sense of the direction in which we wanted to take our respective careers. Easy!

Except, of course, not. I’ve formulated many different variations of this “post-Parisian-stage” blog post in my head, including everything from a how-to of getting a stage in France or a tell-all exposé of the many disappointments I encountered– both in attempting to secure a stage in a foreign country and surviving the day-to-day of a French kitchen once I did finally find myself in one. The reality is that I can’t really be completely transparent about my experience for multiple reasons, including the fact that I might’ve blurred some legal lines in actually getting a stage (who knew so much obscure paperwork was required?!), but I can offer a general picture of the experience– the comedy of errors that it was.

Chapter 1: “La Convention de Stage”
To establish one thing upfront, if you are considering staging in France, you’d better come with some ironclad connections. Forget about printing out your resume– no one cares. There is only one document that matters when it comes to staging in a Parisian kitchen, and it’s called a “convention de stage.” It took Jane and I several confused interactions with various French industry folk before we actually came to understand what this term meant. It’s basically a written agreement between the place you intend to stage at and your (France-based) culinary school. It’s all very formal, and the only way that I can think of that it might not be necessary would be if you have personal connections with a chef in France who might be willing to look the other way. Also, whereas many American kitchens (at least in my experience) will allow cooks to come stage for a single night, Parisian kitchens expect a significant commitment– usually around one month minimum.

When Jane and I first started pounding the pavement in an effort to find stages, our confidence was broken down slowly, culminating in a “what have we done?!”-style despair. The first place I inquired at had a stage waiting list– “some of our stagiaires have been here for over three years!” Okay, so maybe I aimed a little out of my league with that one (it was a really high-end place). The second place asked for my convention de stage as they handed me my resume back. It was only at the third place– a trendy, rustic-style bakery with a handful of locations across Paris– that we found a chef willing to help us out.

Much to our surprise and delight, this chef sat down with us and outlined the purpose and requirements of a convention de stage. He seemed to believe that even an American school could grant us one (this isn’t technically true) and that we didn’t have to be currently enrolled in said school for them to take us on as stages (this DEFINITELY isn’t true). Throughout this process, Jane and I were introduced to a universal truth: no matter how stringent the rules might seem from the outside, there are usually a few good eggs (well, from our perspective, at least) willing to help you bend them.

Jane was able to obtain a document roughly resembling a convention de stage from her Stateside alma mater and begin staging at the bakery– success! I, however, continued to struggle (the bakery Jane went to only had enough space for one stage). My old college in the U.S. was confused by my request for “uh, it’s just some document required by the French government in order for me to stage here, even though it’s unpaid– no, it has nothing to do with my visa– it just needs to say the name of the bakery and the details of my potential position there, in French, and I need it as soon as possible please because I only have a month in a half left here.” I stand by my belief that they could’ve done far more to help me than they ultimately did, but at the time it just seemed like one disappointment among many.

As time started to wind down and our return date for the Chicago was fast approaching, I was feeling pretty let down. Of course, Paris itself had been far from disappointing– Jane and I had managed to eat some truly excellent food, meet a handful of good friends, and experience the city from a non-touristy perspective. But the whole point of the trip had been to stage, goddamnit! Here I was, walking around the streets of Paris as some of the best chefs and cooks in the world toiled away in basement kitchens beneath my feet. I was so, so close to it all– but a single piece of paper (or lack thereof) was preventing me from actually experiencing it.

In a fit of desperation, I did something a little questionable, and that I certainly wouldn’t recommend upfront. But since this is a complete retelling, and I aim to honor the truth, here it is: I found one last bakery that I wanted to ask to stage at. Upon my first try, I was asked for my convention, and I promised to return with one. A few days later, I went back to the bakery, asked for the head chef, and gave him– a document. A not-entirely-unofficial one, but definitely a not-really-what-you’re-asking-for one. It was in English, and I translated it into French line-by-line as the chef listened: for a month-long stage, I would be working 35 unpaid hours a week under French law, living within the restrictions of my tourist visa until I was to return to America at the end of my stay. The chef looked over it, along with my proof of international insurance, and asked me his final question: “So, when can you start?”

It worked! My pseudo-convention had been my final attempt, and a happy mix of some rule-stretching on my part and a willingness to look the other way (or to accept unpaid labor no matter how unorthodox the context) on the chef’s, I had secured myself a month-long stage in a real French bakery. Thank God.

So, more on the actual stage experience itself in part deux of this essay, still to come!