Un été à Paris: Part two, on surviving your stage

Chapter Two: The Stage

We all know the stereotype: an imposing, mustachioed man outfitted in a crisp white chef coat, dumping all of your mise en place into the garbage while screaming obscenities. It’s almost comically cliché, culminating in a very subdued cook uttering a string of “oui chef“s before returning to the failed task, furiously concentrating on not fucking up.

It’s an industry-wide joke that the only real rule of professional kitchens is just that: “don’t fuck up.” Fortunately, I’ve managed to work in some excellent restaurants for chefs willing to trust their cooks and evolve beyond the brutality of old-school kitchen mindsets. Mistakes happen– it’s the nature of the job. Truly, the only real rule should be simply what all of my previous chefs have expected out of their cooks: be better.

So– this was my mentality walking into my first day of my stage in Paris.

It was 5:30 am and I had biked through the pre-dawn darkness to the bakery (thanks Vélib, Paris’ super-cheap bike-share system!), armed only with the instructions to “just walk in the front door!”. I had barely slept the night before, thoughts consumed by nervous energy. I took a moment outside the bakery door to compose myself as I forced myself to down a few breakfast biscuits, unsure of when my next meal would be. Then I walked in.

This would be the start of the most intense kitchen experience of my life. Let it be known upfront that working as a stage is no joke– it’s thankless and grueling, and all of this was amplified by the fact that I was staging in a foreign country. Perhaps I had let my expectations get out of control, but I was simply unprepared for what was about to happen over the course of the next month.

Hey, la porte!” This was my first panicked instant of “oh God, whoops,” as I closed the blast freezer door behind me a little too quickly and it slammed shut with a clack. All of a sudden, all eyes in the kitchen were on me: the new stage, wreaking havoc on the kitchen mere minutes after tying on an apron. “I’m so sorry, chef,” I said, dutifully pausing to take in the ensuing lecture about respecting kitchen equipment. Yes, chef, understood. And of course I understood: I was thoroughly embarrassed, having witnessed so many stages at Blackbird and beyond being reproached for slamming walk-in doors or banging up the Vitamix. Rookie mistake. Whatever, I’d redeem myself.

The remainder of the first day unfolded mostly without incident, but nevertheless, some things just seemed off. No one was introduced to me directly as the sous chef– so it was difficult to understand who to go to when I had questions and the chef was out of the room. Tasks were never fully explained to me, so instead of being able to piece together the different components of a recipe and make sense of it as a logical whole, the whole process seemed disjointed. And finally, strangest of all– I wasn’t allowed to scale anything out. That’s like… the point of having a stage! Stages weigh stuff out, which the people with more experience then mix together/shape/knead/emulsify… whatever. But as a stage in this French bakery, I wasn’t trusted to weigh anything out. Tasks were reduced to “get me a sheet tray.” “Get me parchment paper.” “Clean off the sheeter.” “Pass me the butter blocks as I need them.”

This experience wasn’t unique just to me– there were always multiple stages in the kitchen there, at one time numbering up to four (working alongside the five full-type employees there). It was constantly cramped, and surely limited the amount of time the chef/other employees could spend teaching us how to execute recipes from start to finish. However, I was always grateful for the presence of my fellow stages, whom I bonded with instantly– especially Ella, a girl who had been at the bakery for a month before my arrival, and who was gracious and patient when answering my questions (an excellent recourse before seeking guidance from the always-high-strung chef). The stage culture in Paris is strong, with cooks coming from all over the world to learn pâtisserie from the masters. Every stage in the bakery came from vastly different backgrounds: one Israeli, one Australian, one Chinese, and one American (that’s me!).

I did learn some valuable things while I was there– the bakery was especially known for its croissant production, and I learned the proper way to shape croissants and pain au chocolat, as well as how to shape hundreds of them as quickly as humanly possible. I also revisited some culinary school fundamentals, such as how to properly fill éclairs (there’s a fine line between too much and too little!) and how to hull a million tiny strawberries with minimal waste. As I spent more time there, I was able to pick up a few more “advanced” projects, like building delicate fraisiers with their many layers of soaked cake and diplomat cream, and putting finishing garnishes on some of the bakery’s signature entremets— stunning, intricate individual cakes and tarts compact enough to fit into the palm of a hand.

It was a long month, though. I mostly felt incompetent on a daily basis, questioning my validity as a pastry cook if I could barely even cut it as a stage. It bothered me, too, to work in an environment dominated by fear– a fear that seemed to be cultivated, even enjoyed, by the head chef. He was unpredictable and erratic, an unabashed subscriber to the old school mentality of chef versus cooks. Poor guy, I’m sure it’s all he’s ever known. Still, though, I couldn’t feel too sorry for him as he berated his sous chef for not yelling at us stages enough (yes, this really happened) or asking me if this is the way you work in America?, referring to the specific way I cut an apricot or any other thing that I did in a manner he didn’t approve of.

So, yes, I survived. And yes, sure, I’d do it again– if not for the experience itself, then at least to be able to say that I did it. I guess I can also credit the experience with the renewed gratefulness I feel at being in America (I know– questionable conclusion!), where I can stage freely wherever I’d like and where, while far from being eradicated, this idea of chefs as infallible and cooks as disposable labor is at least starting to be challenged a bit. I know for a fact that not all kitchens in Paris are as militaristic as the one I staged in, and that there are plenty of American kitchens where humiliating your underpaid cooks for making occasional mistakes is de rigeur. Maybe some people reading this article will think I’m just too big of a softie– and maybe I am. But I can say from experience that when the people surrounding you on a daily basis have very low expectations of you, essentially expecting you to fail, then it’s much easier than you might think for this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy– and the opposite is equally and beautifully true.

Between Jane and I, one of favorite things to discuss over glasses of wine at our tiny Airbnb apartment after a long day at our respective stages were the strange discrepancies we found in French kitchens versus their American counterparts. Sometimes it felt like working in a bizarre alternate universe where small details were changed in order to throw us off– but some of the things were so strange! Here are some weird examples:

. Instead of leaving the rolls of plastic wrap inside their convenient cardboard containers with built-in cutting mechanism, people would remove just the roll– and then throw the rest of the box away, as if it served no discernible purpose! So you’re left with the option to cut the plastic against the counter with a knife, or just tear it with your hands. I got many strange looks from my fellow cooks at the bakery as I attempted to re-learn how to wrap things.

. Not many kitchens in France are equipped with ice machines… ice cubes seemed to have not really ever caught on there in general. So, since ice baths were unheard of, cooks just left things such as ice cream bases or pastry cream to cool down in hotel pans on the countertop until the end of the workday, when they would be stored in the walk-in. If this sounds strange to your temperature-danger-zone-oriented brain, well… it’s because it is strange, by American standards.

. Spatulas are used on very rare occasions in French bakeries, which threw me off enormously. Spatulas are my favorite all-purpose tool, and I tend to always have one close at hand. However, at the bakery I staged at, almost all tasks were executed using bowl scrapers, called “cornes” in French. Incorporating whipped cream into a mousse? Corne. Filling a piping bag? Corne. This sounds simple enough, but I often found myself up to my wrists in various creams and batters as my fellow cooks expertly scooped drippy custards into containers without ever getting a trace of it on themselves. So impressive!