Giving it Away
Part One in an interminable dissertation on the stagiaire system and how it can change
Well, hello there,
It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?
Somewhere over the spring, the reporting I was doing on Ukraine combined with my normal random collection of assignments to get the better of me, and I had to put Bord on hold. (Those of you who have been kind enough to subscribe may have noticed that you haven’t been charged lately–I turned off billing some time ago). If you’re interested, you can see a bit of what got in the way of me and this newsletter here and here.
But things have settled a bit, and I thought I’d try again. There are still tons of great Copenhagen stories out there, after all, to say nothing of the opinions I’ve got on a thing or two. I’m not going to turn the billing back on until I’m sure that I can deliver; if things suddenly heat up and I spend the next several weeks zipping around Lviv and Warsaw, Bord may again go into hibernation. But for now at least, I’m bringing it back. Let’s see how it goes, shall we?
For my re-entry, I thought I’d try to bring some context to one aspect of the workplace debate that continues to rage out there. My last attempt at this tried the patience of some people, and this one may as well, not least because it’s going to require some serious verbiage. But on this question, as in so many things in life, I’m a big believer in nuance. And so, I bring you part one of what I hoped is a nuanced, if slightly interminable, dissertation on the stagiaire system.
Thanks for reading,
In case it has somehow escaped your attention, the Financial Times recently published journalist Imogen West-Knight’s powerful indictment of workplace conditions in Copenhagen restaurants. That article was itself a response to the stories and accusations that Lisa Lind Dunbar began publishing on Instagram back in January, and together, these efforts have brought new energy to the ongoing conversation, long underway, about the negative aspects of kitchen culture: the inequality and exploitation it can foster; the physical and mental stress it can generate; the damage it can do to the humans who work in it.
And among those humans, stagiaires—apprentices— figure prominently. Arriving with little or no professional experience to a position that is temporary and often unpaid, stagiaires are at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy and, as the FT piece illustrates, are often exposed to its worst excesses. They work the longest hours, do the most menial tasks, receive the least amount of respect and sometimes the most abuse, and have often made the greatest sacrifices for the opportunity. All this, for no pay.
This series of posts is going to get into how this all came about and what to do about it. But before I do that, I want to temper the FT’s depiction with two caveats: first, that this phenomenon is not confined to Copenhagen. West-Knight makes this point herself, but it has gotten somewhat lost in the ensuing conversation, which sometimes makes it sound like Noma itself invented the stagiaire system. High-end restaurants around the world rely on stagiaires, and there have been periodic exposés of the conditions in which they work before, whether in Spain, the US, or Italy.
Second, I think it’s also important to point out that there are many, many chefs who, despite the hardships of their stages, value the experience and look back on it fondly. They didn’t make it into the FT piece, but they’re easy to find, maybe even easier than those that regret their stages. This is highly anecdotal, but my own experience talking with chefs through the years—and observing the legions who continue to volunteer for stages, even after they’ve obtained paid jobs— suggests that the most common reaction is mixed—an acknowledgement that stages are difficult, but that they’re ultimately worth it.
Many appreciate the education they got from their stage, not only into how specific dishes at specific restaurants get made, but into how professional kitchens work. Others appreciate the camaraderie and bonding among the fellow stagiaires with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour, shucking oysters and cleaning herbs. And with its reputation as a kind of hazing period, some who go through it are glad to have had the experience to test and eventually prove themselves. Just the other day I was texting with a chef who had watched a film about elBulli, where he had staged in 2009. “It almost made me cry,” he said of the movie. “I felt so much nostalgia.”
But those caveats aside, there is, as the FT piece points out, an undeniable and damning truth about the system of fine dining today: many of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world could not do what they do without stagiaires, which is to say, without unpaid labor.
For some who see gastronomy as an elitist institution meant to coddle the wealthy while lining restaurateurs’ pockets, this fact comes as one more piece of evidence that fine dining should not exist. For some within the industry who are aware of its desperately tight margins, that fact is evidence that without stagiaires, fine dining could not exist.
I don’t believe either is true. But I do believe that a business model that depends on free labor is no business at all. I believe that everyone should be fairly compensated for their work, and that professionals, no matter how inexperienced, should be treated with respect. I believe that both the stage system, and the larger industry that surrounds it, can change so that all those things are true.
But it won’t be easy; and as long as the focus is on ‘simply’ raising prices or ‘simply’ paying people fairly, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere. To really reform the system we need to understand its origins, and we need to look at how and why it has evolved over time. We have to ask who profits from it, including players we perhaps hadn’t considered. We have to be open to the possibility that there are other forms of valuable compensation beyond money, and if we accept them, we have to ensure that they are actually being offered. We have to be willing to untangle strands that are so knotted by time and habit and other forces that they sometimes seem a solid, immutable mass. We have to be willing to interrogate the status quo, rather than simply accept it.
And then, we have to go even further. Because it seems to me that what has to change is not just the economics of fine dining restaurants, but the aesthetics of them. What has to change is taste itself.
(Part Two coming soon.)