Staging: How much experience do you need?

 
Tackling fish on one of my first stages…

Tackling fish on one of my first stages…

 

When I started staging in kitchens, I wasn’t a professional chef. I was simply a journalist with a serious passion for cooking and a rather mischievous editor who thought it would be interesting to see if I could survive a sixteen hour day cooking in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

I was accepted at Simon Rogan’s now closed Fera at Claridge’s to write a recruitment piece on my chef debut and, despite a constant fear of screwing up and a few achy bones the day after; I not only survived but also learnt an incredible amount about what it means to be a chef, how hard it is and how much you really have to want it.

My experience at Fera at Claridge’s was the first in some 40 stages to date and, in order to continue staging in kitchens effectively, I also took a job as a part-time chef (40 hours a week) at a gastropub in London.

Staging and training in kitchens means a lot more than wanting to go in for a few hours and learn Michelin-starred cheese on toast. If you are new to being a chef or have little experience, a natural wish to join the industry must be part of it.

And it’s an industry that is waiting with open arms.

Only last month, Michael O’Hare – he of big hair and a Michelin star in Leeds – tweeted that, due to the severity and distress of the seemingly eternal chef shortage in the UK, he would be taking on restaurant staff at his place, The Man Behind the Curtain, that needed no previous experience in the industry:

The shortage is real, not only in the UK but all over the world, and kitchens are becoming more open to the training of those with little to no culinary education.

When I ask head chefs if they require a certain level of experience for stagiaires in their kitchens, the answer is often the same and usually includes the words “passion and enthusiasm”.  

Gareth Ward at Ynyshir in Wales, Adam Smith at Restaurant Coworth Park in Ascot, Steven Ellis at Oxford Blue in Windsor – the list of chefs that have told me that they’re willing to take on stagiaires with little experience goes on and on.

But as I said, this doesn’t mean that you can simply trot into a professional kitchen after your day job at the supermarket. Top level restaurants are not a walk in the park and working in one, even for a day or two, takes serious commitment.

There are a few restaurants that take members of the public into their kitchens for a day (for a price) to experience life as a chef, including L’Ortolan in Reading, but this is more of a one-off event and not what I mean by passion and enthusiasm.

A wonderful example comes from Jacky Chan – once a commis chef at The Pony & Trap in Chew Magna.

 
Jacky Chan (furthest left) with Josh Eggleton and the team at The Pony & Trap, Bristol

Jacky Chan (furthest left) with Josh Eggleton and the team at The Pony & Trap, Bristol

 

Jacky ran a Chinese takeaway restaurant in the centre of Bristol but, after 13 years, yearned for something more. He was sick of doing big plates of Chinese food at the restaurant and wanted to enter the world of fine dining. To do this, he closed his restaurant and took the plunge.

After enrolling in a local culinary college, he took a three month stage at Josh Eggleton’s The Pony & Trap as part of his studies, with Josh telling me that his staff food was always something to look forward to.

He also started to eat at a number of top restaurants across the country and in his native Hong Kong when visiting, including at the three Michelin-starred Bo Innovation where he befriended the executive chef, Alvin Leung, who said he could return to the restaurant to stage with him, which he did.

Jacky was offered a commis position by Josh Eggleton after finishing his studies, which he accepted, staying at The Pony & Trap for three successful years before permanently returning to Hong Kong a few months ago.

Today, Jacky is a chef de partie at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong having reunited with Alvin Leung – the next step in a wonderful tale for a man who changed everything in his 40’s.

He is proof that, with a serious passion for cooking and a willingness to use staging in order to grow as a chef within the industry, a lack of experience doesn’t have to hold you back.