The "stage": How I landed a job at Eleven Madison Park

 
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In order to graduate from culinary school, I had to work in a professional kitchen. Having never even stepped foot in a professional kitchen before, I only had movies and books to warn me of what was to come. My kitchen experiences were limited to home and, of course, culinary school. Luckily, my experience had little resemblance to Hollywood’s portrayal.

Working in a kitchen – and fine dining, no less – requires a strong work ethic and positive attitude. So does trying to get the job.

The way I was used to interviewing for internships and jobs looked nothing like kitchen interviews. First, it’s not even called an interview. Getting a job in a kitchen means doing a “stage” or a “trail”, which is when someone volunteers in a kitchen to learn new techniques. Not everyone who does a stage is trying to get a job; sometimes, they just really want to learn how great restaurants operate. For those are looking for an internship or job, instead of sitting down to have a back-and-forth conversation, you spend more than half a day working in the kitchen. Basically, you prove your skills on the spot.

Attempting to work at Eleven Madison Park took a good amount of pep talk. As one of the top restaurants in the world, Eleven Madison has high standards and low tolerance for mistakes. I was eager to work in a kitchen where I would be challenged daily and learn a lot, in addition to being involved in creating stellar food. Despite how intimidating a place like this would be, it felt like where I needed to be.

Interviewing in general gives me deep anxiety. Now imagine having to spend 8-12 hours demonstrating your abilities – with sharp knives in a hot, fast-paced, crowded environment. Ultimately, after a long day of being on your feet getting caught up in the whirl of passionate, skilled people who love food just as much as you do, the exhilaration squashes any worries.

At Eleven Madison Park, you’re more focused on doing a stellar job and responding with “Oui, chef!” to even consider being bothered with nerves. Even if you don’t know the choreography, you can still dance along. You’ll find the rhythm as you keep moving.

After spending a day (and night) staging, I landed the job. My experience in the EMP kitchen was one of the most exciting, exhausting, challenging, character-building experiences – so was the stage itself. I showed up for my “interview” ready to go. If you’re interested in working in the back of house at a fine dining restaurant, there are ways you can stand out among others vying for the same role.

  1. Arrive early. You’ll get instructions beforehand about where to go and who to ask for. Map out directions and how long it’ll take you to get to the restaurant. Then give yourself an extra 15-30 minutes on top of that. You never know what could happen in that extra time. The front entrance isn’t usually where you’ll enter. When I arrived for my Eleven Madison stage, the door I needed to enter through was an inconspicuous service entrance. Luckily, I gave myself enough time to get there that I stood out in the rain for about 10 minutes before making my way to the kitchen. Introduce yourself to the appropriate contact 5-10 minutes earlier than the time you’re supposed to be there. This gives you time to change, as well as shows that you’re eager and timely.

  2. Show up prepared. Bring the appropriate uniform (typically black chef pants, white undershirt, black socks, and black kitchen shoes). Have your pre-sharpened knives (your chef’s knife, paring knife, serrated knife, peeler, and sharpening steel) in a knife roll. Bring a small notepad that fits in your chef’s coat pocket or pants, along with a Sharpie and a pen. Though a thermometer isn’t necessarily required, the Chef de Cuisine asked to use mine during meal service, so I lean toward being over-prepared. If you have long hair, don’t forget a hairband. Leave your nail polish, jewelry, and watch at home. Part of being ready also includes doing your due diligence. Study the menu, know the chefs’ names, and prepare a few questions to ask.  

  3. Ask questions at the right time. When the kitchen is in service and people are concentrating, this is not the best time to ask your questions. When there’s a lull or you hear other people having (quiet) side conversations, sneak your questions in.

  4. Move and work with composed urgency. There’s a lot to prep so there’s no time to waste. If you need to grab something from the walk-in, walk there and back to your station as quickly as you can. But it’s not just about rushing. Move with urgency in a composed way, because if you’re hasty you’ll just cause more problems.

  5. Clean as you go. No one wants to clean up after you, and in kitchens like Eleven Madison Park, sloppiness and uncleanliness are unforgivable.

  6. Observe your surroundings. Soak in what you’re learning, seeing, and hearing. There’s so much to learn in every kitchen. Keep one eye on your work and one eye observing everything around you – kitchens move fast, don’t miss it.

  7. Pay attention to what you’re doing. When you’re working with sharp tools and people are moving quickly around you, focus on the task at hand. You don’t want to unnecessarily throw away more ingredients than you need to. Avoid this by concentrating and putting your skills to good use.

  8. Don’t complain. You wouldn’t complain if your boss asked you to do something, nor would you whine in an interview if someone asked you a question you didn’t feel like answering. Don’t do it in the kitchen either.

  9. Improvise. There may come a time in your stage that you need to cook something. I didn’t know it when I went in for my stage (ignorance is bliss), but a little more than halfway through the night (going on hour seven) I had to cook a French omelet. Yes, I had a minor panic attack. No, I didn’t quietly slip out of the back entrance into the drizzly New York City night. I went blind with fear, somehow found the ingredients I needed, and cooked the French omelet without any browning and to the chef’s liking. Yes, he ate the entire thing. No, I didn’t cry with relief. The lesson here is you have the skills you need; you really can do it.

  10. You’re interviewing the team just as much as they’re interviewing you. You’re being watched and assessed, but you should be thinking about how you fit in with the team, too. Did you like the team? The chefs? The food? The techniques? Do you see yourself learning and growing there? What was the vibe you felt, and did you leave feeling optimistic?

  11. Follow up with a thank you email. This one’s simple: be respectful and polite. Also, the chefs and line cooks and prep cooks deserve gratitude when they’ve taken you in for the night. Getting the work done is hard enough; managing you was an additional task.

Bonus tip: Have Epsom salt ready at home for a 1 a.m. foot soak. Your feet will thank you.