Will Work for Food: Hungry chefs take to the stage

When Gerard Craft jet-hopped to bonny London for a wedding last year, his suitcase carried the usual: clothes, shoes, toiletries and kitchen knives.

"People's knives are very personal. You don't touch somebody else's knives," said Craft, executive chef and owner of Niche Restaurant in Benton Park. The mild-mannered Craft doesn't always pack cutlery, mind you - though he never leaves home without them on his way to a stage.

Pronounced – pardon our French – "stahj," a stage is a short, unpaid training stint in a professional kitchen. Staging is exacting, but informal; in restaurant parlance, it's often called "hanging out."

Everybody's doing it
"When I went to New York for the James Beard Awards [in June], I hung out at Daniel for a day," said Joshua Galliano, chef de cuisine at An American Place downtown. Galliano has also ducked into The Square in London and Commander's Palace in New Orleans. Like Craft, Galliano typically sneaks in stages while vacationing.

Ramon Cuffie of La Dolce Via Bakery and Café in The Grove is another avid stagiaire (pronounced – pardon our French again – "stah-zhee-EHR") who's visited kitchens in three countries and more than a half-dozen cities. Cuffie tends to stage like a proverbial rolling stone. In the mid-'90s, it was Italy that lured him away.

"It was supposed to be 15 days and it ended up damn near 30," said Cuffie with a broad smile. His knife bag journeyed with him to Florence, Milan, Parma and Cinque Terre. Afterward, he returned to his then-employer, Bar Italia in the Central West End, where the menu quickly came into its own. "We didn't have the same ingredients, but we were close in integrity," Cuffie said. "We did really good research."

Cuffie arranged his stages in Italy impromptu. "I knocked on their doors, and they said, 'Come in.'"

Open-door policy
Local restaurants take in stagiaires all the time. Revival even recruits them on its Web site, though cold calls and the friend-of-a-friend system seem to dominate in this city.

Christina Machamer, a St. Louis native and this year's winner of Hell's Kitchen, has done several stages at An American Place. Galliano said she just showed up one day, curious and willing to work. "She scaled a lot of fish for me," Galliano said. An extra paring knife is likewise welcome at The Shaved Duck.

"We say, 'Come hang out. Come play for a night,'" explained Brendan Noonan, executive chef of the Tower Grove East restaurant. Recently, Katie Wiggins of St. Charles joined Noonan and The Duck's pastry chef Wes Johnson for a whirlwind five-hour stage. Wiggins doesn't currently cook for a living, although someday she just might. By the time she sloughed off her chef's coat, she'd helped make shortbread cookies, ratatouille, duck confit and rillette of pork. Wiggins also rolled out bread dough for the first time.

"Grab and roll, grab and roll – I'm not using my thumbs at all," said Johnson, shaping dough into what became an Italian baguette. Later, as Wiggins chopped up bell peppers, squash, garlic and eggplant for the ratatouille, Noonan said, "Separate out the garlic and eggplant, because those are the two most likely to stick and burn."

Cooking and baking are quintessentially hands-on – which means stages supply culinarians with countless tips that are impossible to compile in a textbook. What's more, perfection requires practice.

"In culinary school, you get to do everything once pretty much," Noonan said. "Sometimes you get to do things twice."

Show us what you got
While some stagiaires are just curious cooks, the majority are looking for either immediate or eventual employment.

Matthew Templeton, executive chef of Chez Leon in the Central West End, once trained a law school student who was contemplating a career change. 'He staged about two months, and then he went running and screaming back to law school,' said Templeton. No, the chef's life isn't for everyone.

Stages make sense from an employer's point of view, too – and most independent restaurants in town look favorably on them. 'You wouldn't walk up to someone on the street and say, "Here's a knife and a lighter. I trust you to stand next to me with these things,'" Noonan said.

Apart from passing the nice test, stagiaires need to show off their skills and prove they can stand the heat. (As Johnson put it, "Anybody can B.S. their way through an interview.") Steve Caravelli, who recently became the executive chef of Sleek steakhouse downtown, was working at An American Place when Galliano auditioned there. "By the time he was done making tomato confit, it was all perfectly lined up. Every single tomato had a tiny sliver of garlic and a tiny sprig of thyme and the perfect amount of oil on it," Caravelli said. You already know the rest of the story: Galliano got the job.

Six degrees of Daniel Boulud
"I'm working for Daniel Boulud. Well, sorta. I'm with Feasts & Fetes for the busy season."

Making regular notebook entries (a notebook is essential for keeping track of all a stagiaire does, tastes and observes), Galliano carefully documented one of his first and most formative stages at the celebrated Daniel in New York, a restaurant where several St. Louis chefs have wielded a French knife over the years.

Staging with culinary icons has obvious appeal. In London last spring, Craft spent time at Fergus Henderson's restaurant St. John. Henderson's trademark nose-to-tail cookery is right up Craft's alley. After his St. John stint, Craft started using braising liquid for soup bases, and he also got a tip for processing animal skins. "Every time they get skin, they put it in a bucket filled with salt – they keep putting new salt over old skin. Then they braise the skin in fat, usually duck fat, and bake it," he said.

Craft's colleague, Niche pastry chef Mathew Rice, has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Mindy Segal, chef and owner of Hot Chocolate in Chicago. "She was short-staffed, so I was right beside her the whole time," Rice said. "It was great to see a pastry chef who was also the executive chef."

Rice said he did a lot of plating at Hot Chocolate, which is one of his favorite things. At other restaurants he's been less fortunate.

Cilantro station
"At one place, I picked cilantro leaves for a couple of hours. You do whatever comes up, you don't get to pick and choose," Rice said.

Craft has had the same experience. "It's not like you walk into the kitchen and they say, 'Oh, my chef buddy! Create me a dish for tonight.' That's definitely not how it goes," he said. At St. John, Craft did a tiny bit of butchering (good thing he had his knives on hand), though he mainly manned the salad station. "I spent the whole time making aioli, green sauce, vinaigrettes – cleaning greens, peeling horseradish ... "

During one stage, Galliano found himself cleaning 10 pounds of chanterelles – but that wasn't the worst part. His cutting board was set up on milk crates – but that wasn't the worst part either. The worst part was the location of his station. "I was in the hallway. I wasn't even prepping in the kitchen. People were walking past me every five minutes," he said. Soon Galliano had had enough. "I put my mushrooms down after doing about 5 pounds, and I said, 'Thanks, but this isn't the right place for me to stage.' I already knew how to clean chanterelles. All I was learning was how to squeeze out of people's way."

You better stage around
While staging is something that young culinarians tend to do more actively, Craft, Galliano, Cuffie and Rice continue to stage around for one simple reason: There is always more to learn – more flavor combinations, more preparations, more strategies for organizing the close quarters of a kitchen.

What Galliano learned at Daniel alone fills pages and pages. His "Notes on Daniel" include sketches of platings, assembly diagrams, recipes, reflections on management styles and scattered epiphanies: "You can do anything with enough manpower!" Now when he visits someone else's kitchen, Galliano pays special attention to its mise en place and overall flow. "It's not just the food, it's how they execute orders – how they call the line and put plates up in the window so they're going out in a timely manner," he said.

Chefs permitting, Rice supplements his notebook entries with photos. He also asks for recipes – he's not shy. Mindy Segal's pretzel recipe is a recent acquisition and comes in handy when Rice wants to marry salty with sweet. Segal also turned him on to tuile, a type of lightweight, crisp cookie.

With a stage at St. John under his knife belt, Craft will have to decide where to go next. "Staging is important so you don't get stale," he said.