In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, Chef Sean Brock's kitchen at McCrady's is full of young faces, listening to punk as they prep. And among a sea of white jackets, a solitary brown number stands out.
That mismatched person isn't on the staff, but there he is, chopping and slicing with the rest of them. And he isn't even getting paid to do it. It's not uncommon to see people like him in kitchens throughout the Holy City and the world.
They may be there for a few months, trying to prove themselves in the hopes of being hired for a rare opening. They may be passing through town for the evening, driving from who knows how far just to work one night in one of Charleston's best kitchens. They may be 19 years old, or maybe they've already been nominated for a James Beard Award themselves. They may be sleeping at a sous chef's house, in a hotel room, in their car.
"I ask them the same question that I was asked the first five seconds of my first stage ever: What are you here to learn?" says Brock.
Learning is why they're at McCrady's. They're a stage.
(A note for reader's: The word has the French pronunciation, with a soft "age" like in mirage.)
Staging can be easily defined to non-culinary folks: Essentially, it's an internship. But unlike internships, which are usually done during college to get school credit or boost a resumé, stages are often completed throughout a chef's career. It could be the first position an aspiring cook takes right out of culinary school, using the chance to prove that they fit in to the kitchen's environment so they can get hired on in the end. And sometimes seasoned professionals want to learn from a different master.
Many restaurants, whether locally, nationally, or internationally, constantly take on stages. In some of the more rigid spots, a stage is required to serve a minimum or maximum length of time. They're put on a schedule like the rest of the staff. Sometimes they never get near a stove; instead, they're left to peel potatoes or do some other sort of menial labor.
McCrady's is the exact opposite. Brock doesn't require a particular length of time and completely opens his kitchen, and himself, to interested chefs. He even goes so far as to let them copy down recipes straight from his own book.
"To me, it's about the constant progression of cuisine, the constant progression of food. I'm very interested in the future," he says. "So the more people that learn, the more people we have with experience and knowledge, the faster food's going to move in the right direction."
A stage will come to McCrady's because they can learn about farming, charcuterie, preserving, and modern food science, like using tanks of liquid nitrogen (and other methods that came out of Brock's mouth in a technical jumble only decipherable by molecular gastronomists).
Brock respects the art of the stage. "It's been that way forever in Europe, but Americans are just starting to learn the positive side of it," he says. And among Charleston's culinary talent, the concept is commonplace.
There are only 56 Master French Chefs in the United States (and only a couple hundred in the world). That makes about one Master French Chef per state. And that's not even counting how many there probably are in New York City. And Montana, the Dakotas, and much of the states in the Mid-West probably don't have one.
But South Carolina has a Master French Chef on King Street: Chef Nico Romo of Fish was awarded the distinguished title this year.
The French-born-and-educated Romo explains that culinary training in Europe is different from training in the U.S. Here, more emphasis is placed on classes. Across the pond, in the course of one school year, a student spends four to five months in full training at a fine dining restaurant. Romo emphasizes the importance of getting this hands-on experience, and while he does believe it's important to have a bachelor's degree, it's not as crucial as having that kitchen background.
"If you want to be a chef, you focus on being a chef. That means during the time that you come to a restaurant, you have to work ... you have to learn everything," he says.
That doesn't mean just doing a stage and then moving automatically into a permanent position. Romo thinks new chefs should work in many different environments. "Every chef has a way to do something. They become who they want to be, and they do what they want to do. But before you want to know who you want to be and what you do, you've got to find out what is out there."
Students want the glitz and the glamour, and they want to make food pretty and conceptual. Sure, that's a great ambition to have, but Romo emphasizes the need to know the basics. Dicing perfectly, slicing perfectly, doing everything perfectly. And fast. And you've got to get that expertise in a real kitchen.
And whatever you do: Do not expect to get monetary compensation. Stages are never paid in Europe, and from what the City Paper has heard, that's not going to happen on this side of the Atlantic either. But you will get paid — in knowledge. "I get it," Romo says. "I understand when you pay that much in school, but it's also the knowledge, it's the understanding of sacrificing your time, sacrificing yourself for a stage, for learning, that's what people need. It's hard for a lot of kids to understand that."
And Charleston is a stage's wonderland. Romo acknowledges that there are so many chefs here, each passionate about their own way of cooking, from his own French-Asian fusion to charcuterie to New Southern cuisine. Romo has some advice for culinary students in the Holy City: "You should be fighting to get jobs and to come and stage and try and stage in a restaurant and learn how to do everything."
Cynthia Groseclose is a petite chef making petite food. A boutique caterer behind the company Canape, her blog, cynthiagroseclose.com, routinely displays pictures of her tiny delights.
But her first real job was in marketing, a position she took after graduating from the College of Charleston. She obviously wasn't planning on a long future with the company, which built cell phone towers; she was saving up for Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where she started her training in 2004.
Married, she traveled back and forth between France and the U.S. for two years while she attended the culinary school. Eventually, with graduation looming and approval for a stage at Le Chiberta, Groseclose had to decide whether she should commit to three additional months away from her family — so she instead started to look at French chefs in New York City.
Groseclose wanted to work with chefs that she looked up to, with a shortlist including Daniel Boulud (at the eponymous Daniel). She flew to the city to do a one-night trial. There was no guarantee they would ask her to come back after she took her shot. But they did. And she accepted. She agreed to work at the restaurant, and with its catering company, Feast & Fêtes, for a month, unpaid. At the end of the month, if they liked her work, they would start giving her wages as an employee.
On a typical day, Groseclose would get to Daniel around 8:30 or 9 a.m. She'd come in and be told what to do. Maybe she would prep for the restaurant or for the catering company. A stage does the humdrum tasks: peeling asparagus, turning mushrooms, picking crab. But every once in awhile, she was allowed to work the line, particularly at the canape station, where she got the idea for her current business. Usually she'd be out by 11 p.m.; the latest she was ever at Daniel was around 2:30 a.m., after a wedding.
It sounds tedious, and it was, but Groseclose says, "Doing the grunt work over and over and over again is what helps you learn how to do it perfectly." And she's had a lot of friends who have staged who were limited in what they were trusted to do and who often weren't even allowed to use heat. So she thought it was pretty cool that they even let her near the stove.
The three months passed, and Daniel offered Groseclose a position. She didn't take it. She returned to Charleston and eventually started Canape, taking what she learned at Feast & Fêtes and essentially mimicking it and tweaking it for her Charleston business. In New York, she learned organization skills, and, most importantly, the concept of perfection, of being meticulous with every dish or appetizer. "If it was just the slightest bit off in size, throw it out and start over. I think that mentality is in my head from that," she says.
Groseclose has also done nights with Chef Bob Waggoner and Chef Robert Carter. And she's worked with Jamie Kimm, a well-known New York City-based food stylist. "You learn so much from other people who have been successful," she says. "Everyone has a different reason why they're successful, and you can learn so much just from being there and listening and doing and take what you learn from that and take it and tweak it and make it work for you."
But maybe a new chef can't stage right after culinary school. Maybe they didn't even go to culinary school at all, and after working in restaurants in Iowa, they move back to Charleston to be with their mother after their father passes away, never really getting the chance to get that experience early in their career. Wild Olive's Executive Chef Jacques Larson didn't stage until years after his career began, having already served in top positions at Peninsula Grill and Cintra. In 2006, Larson took a break from his career and traveled to New York to work for three months, unpaid.
It sounds financially terrifying, but this wasn't just any stage: Larson worked at Lupa and Otto, two restaurants owned by renowned Chef Mario Batali. People in Charleston make fun of Larson because he's so enamored with Batali, but he believes there's really no other Italian-American chef that really has taken the heart of Italian cuisine and translated it to the United States.
Larson decided he wanted to stage at Lupa after having a meal at the affordable restaurant, where nothing on the menu cost more than $20. He was blown away by the quality of food that was offered at such a low price, a conviction he wanted to get into himself.
He asked to speak to the chef, and they welcomed his offer of an extra set of hands. On his first day, he was put on a station all by himself, which he described as "baptism by fire, to say the least."
Within the first month of a three-month stint at the two restaurants, Larson encountered Batali, standing in his chef jacket and orange clogs, with his long ponytail, wearing shorts in the middle of a very cold January. Larson couldn't help but giggle. He describes Batali as very approachable and present in all of his restaurants — and he owns many. He also says that the kitchens of this food celebrity weren't as terrifying as some of the stories you hear of French kitchens. "Mario's whole approach — he doesn't necessarily believe in the old-school, that you beat your cooks to get out of them what you want," Larson says. "He definitely had a managerial or ownership approach of you treat people respectfully and you'll get a lot more out of them, which I love."
Larson also went to Italy, where he says no one had heard of Batali, and ate his way through the country, getting up the nerve to ask to stage at certain restaurants. The first place turned him down; the woman that ran the kitchen did not allow men to work there. He eventually worked with two sisters in Barbaresco, who took over a trattoria from their deceased father. There, he handmade pasta, struggled with the language barrier, and had staff family meals that often involved multiple courses — and wine. That's something that doesn't happen often in America; usually the kitchen staff goes an entire shift without eating. Even at Lupa, where there would be a staff meal, they probably wouldn't be dining in a courtyard in the spring sun. More likely, Larson would hang out with the other chefs in a bodega, eating on milk crates.
He also spent some time at La Libra in Alba with a more new-style chef. "(Staging) really broadens your perspective, and like anything in life, you take what you want and you leave the rest behind, but I definitely took a lot from those places," he says with a laugh.
Now Larson hosts stages himself, usually chefs in the process of getting hired at the Johns Island restaurant. He says he's not necessarily concerned with experience, but more with work ethic and attitude. That's something that's hard to glean from a resumé.
Jeremiah Langhorne staged at the best restaurant in the world.
The best. Literally. That isn't a bit of hyperbole: This year, Restaurant magazine named Noma, which serves reinterpreted Nordic cuisine in Copenhagen, Denmark, the best restaurant in the world. At press time, Langhorne, who is on staff under Chef Brock at McCrady's (a position he received after staging at the restaurant), was finishing a month-long spell at Noma.
"Staging is something that I find is essential to learning and moving forward in the cooking industry, so I do them as often as possible," Langhorne says via Facebook (it's a little tricky to get in touch with a source when they're halfway across the world). He got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a practically impossible feat, through Brock, who knew a guy that knew a guy. "The philosophy at Noma is very different from most restaurants," he says. "It is all about nature and using the elements of nature to create organic dishes and a very cohesive menu." He believes René Redzepi, Noma's chef and co-owner, makes one-of-a-kind food, maintaining simplicity without sacrificing taste.
"The first time I walked into the main kitchen, it was spectacular," he says. "Everything was so organized and clean and everyone was working in such a controlled manner." Stage duties at Noma change depending on where one is stationed and includes daily prep for the whole menu. One of his best experiences was going out into the Danish countryside with a sous chef, collecting the herbs that are essential to the restaurant's cuisine.
Langhorne admits that leaving a paid position to travel to Europe, live out of a hotel, and work for free was difficult, but at the same time, it wasn't. "I know for sure that it was definitely worth it," he says. "It's hard to leave your home and the level of comfort at your job and go to a new place, but it's also very exciting, so for me, the reward is worth so much more than the risk.
"It's very important to see a different way of doing things and gaining a new perspective," he adds. "There is always something to learn from everyone in this industry. That's why I love it so much."
C hef Brock says mentoring a stage is just like running a kitchen. "You take all of your experiences from the past and you understand the positives and you understand the negatives and you look at the things that you liked and that you didn't like, and then you make your own policies and you make your own theories and ideas and styles."
Brock wants his stages to leave with a positive experience, especially if someone's going to fly in from Chicago and stay in a hotel to work just one night at his restaurant (which has happened). He says, "I want people to continue learning, and I enjoy being a teacher and I enjoy sharing knowledge and I enjoy that idea." Sometimes it's a big dream for a chef to stage at a favorite restaurant, and it's a great disappointment when everyone is rude to them and all they do is menial work. A stage's time at McCrady's will be worthwhile; for example, if they want to learn charcuterie, the restaurant will order more meat and let that person spend three days working with it.
But Brock does think that a stage should fulfill some obligations. He asserts that they need to be thankful, polite, and mind their manners. They should "realize that someone is giving you years and years and years of blood, sweat, and tears in a matter of days."
And they should be respectful of the kitchen's permanent staff, and they shouldn't get too comfortable just because McCrady's seems like a casual environment. Brock says unfortunately, a lot people have to be reminded of that simple fact. But they never have to be reminded more than once.
Recently, Brock had an unfortunate situation with a stage. The guy had come to spend a week at McCrady's, and they had provided him with housing. He was supposed to help out through a Saturday dinner service.
He never showed up. And he never said goodbye. But most importantly, he never said thank you.
Big mistake dude. Brock will share every accomplishment, every technique, every discovery, and even every mistake he's ever made with a stage. After a stint, most people will send gifts, care packages of whiskey and beer. But this guy totally blew it.
"I went above and beyond sharing my 16 years of hard work with you, and you left without saying thank you," Brock says in a terrifyingly calm voice. "If I see you again, I'm going to whip your fucking ass."