Originally published on Eater.com
Every year, the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list elicits the same round of responses. Chefs cheer their colleagues. Those who can afford it start booking tables for dinner. And the rest of us kvetch.
The usual complaints range from elitism (most of the restaurants are affordable only to the wealthy), sexism (this year’s list has only three restaurants led by women), and corruption (there are no rules against judges accepting free meals or travel from tourism boards). In Canada, we additionally complain about being left off the list entirely, an outrage that is hard to juggle with the above criticisms without seeming hypocritical. But our hallowed insecurity allows us to unironically grouse about not being members of a club we wouldn’t want to belong to.
What is unfair, underneath the veneer of awards, and the steady flow of international reservation requests they come with, is an ugly economic reality. Because many of these temples of culinary artistry cannot function without the work of stagiaires, their unpaid labor force.
A stage (pronounced: stajh, taken from the French word for “trainee”) is like a cooking internship, and the practice is much more common in elite, destination restaurants than local faves. Some cooks do this for a few days, but often the unpaid work lasts for weeks or months; depending on the kitchen, a stage might see themselves chopping up produce for mise en place or running entire stations during a night’s dinner service. Ostensibly, a cook who has already been in the field a few years, is staging to learn, to absorb new skills and knowledge from the kitchen’s full-time staff — because to be the best, you’ve got to learn from the best. I know a chef who staged at the French Laundry in California, and he doesn’t regret the unpaid, 14-hour days for a minute. It made him who he is. And for those who are able to do this, the experience is figuratively priceless. But in a literal sense, it does have a cost.