First, a bit about New York kitchens and the stereotypes, generalizations and facts that I've gathered in my short time here. First and foremost, I realize I've been incredibly spoiled working in sprawling modern kitchens in the Midwest; most of the work spaces I have been in in this city are no bigger than my boyfriend and my one bedroom apartment. And you're lucky if the kitchen is even in the same building (even more so, on the same floor) I've had to run up staircases, around corners, across streets and even through basements to grab an ingredient on the fly. And despite New York's strict food safety standards (my first week here I had to take a 20 hour course and pass an exam just to get my food handler's card, compared to the 10 question quiz that Alaskan food handler's are required to pass) at least half of the 8 restaurants I staged at, I would only eat at half. I saw cockroaches, rats, moldy product, leaky pipes and deplorable personal hygiene. While the facilities have a lot to do with the feel of the kitchen, I find that the cooks and chefs really make or break it.
Blame Gordon Ramsay, blame the heat or blame the cocaine; I don't know what it is but New York chefs are more or less all douchecanoes. Most of the men (all of the kitchens I staged in were run by men, and I find I work best for women) I spent a day in the kitchen with thought they were God's gift to foodie-kind. Not only that but they couldn't communicate to save their lives and just ended up frustrated and yelling about my inability to read their mind in reference to a particular plate set up or menu item.
Peppered around the irate chefs are 3 types of New York line cooks. First and foremost are the ubiquitous hard working, Spanish speaking immigrants; if you can bridge the language barrier, these folks are my favorite to work with because they kick ass, are generally very humble and work for considerably less than they deserve.
Stage comes from the French word stagiaire, which means assistant/apprentice. In the cooking world, a stage is your interview/audition for a potential job in the glamorous world of the back of house. In reality, a stage is when you work your ass off for at least 8 hours in the aforementioned dirty kitchens with a-hole chefs just for a chance at a $10/hr job. Kitchens tend to operate on the assumption that it is your sole desire as a line cook to move up the ranks to become the loudest, angriest (albeit most talented) person in the kitchen, aka, the Chef. Luckily for me, I was in the position that I didn't need the job immediately so I shopped around and staged in 8 kitchens over the course of 3 weeks. That's 64 hours of free labor; in their defense, a few kitchens provided a family meal (a few of which I cooked) one even gave me a shift drink, but even though I might have killed it and cooked my ass off, not a single one offered any monetary compensation. I suppose it is a bit of a right of passage into the New York restaurant world (I ended up taking a position at a super cute place with amazing ingredients, a beautiful menu and a very passionate/temperamental chef... I lasted 2 weeks) but for some reason it felt SO good to have jumped onto a busy dinner line like nobody's business, then make a delicious family meal from scratch and even Ace an honest-to-god-Iron-Chef-mystery-ingredient challenge (Seared red snapper, fava bean puree, soy glazed carrots) and tell the chef with the holier-than-thou attitude and rats in his pantry that I didn't want to cook for him.
While I have a lot of respect for the truly talented restaurant chefs, whose management and interpersonal skills match their talent and passion for their food, that's not the path for me. Eventually I would like to run a little farm to table dinner situation back in beautiful Northeast Iowa, but until then I'll keep catering parties, tasting what New York has to offer, and testing recipes and shooting The Curious Cook to get my culinary thrills. As a catering cook, I work less, don't have to deal with the stress of the dinner rush and am not stuck in the same cramped kitchen every night; in fact I've cooked in some of the craziest places in New York for parties like Roosevelt Island, Sotheby's, MoMA and the Intrepid) In a nutshell, the stage is a necessary evil for any line cook looking to jump into the New York restaurant scene, and while I learned a lot, that's not the life for me.