Monday, December 23, 2013

Free labor in the professional kitchens

The other day, we had a culinary extern come in to stage. He looked freakishly a lot like Morgan, the fellow I used to share my cramped station with. It was funny. When I saw this guy, I was thinking to myself, “What the?!!~ Did Morgan miss us so much that he came back?”  I guess this Morgan lookalike is aspiring to become a culinary professional and eager to gain hands-on experience to see where the path leads him.

With the growing popularity of the culinary industry, it is not unusual to see these young motivated aspiring chefs in the professional kitchens, volunteering their free time. Some chefs welcome these guys with open arms. Others do everything they can to keep them out of their kitchen.
Many of these individuals come in enthusiastic, ready to soak up every vital information thrown at them, and willing to do all of grunt work that others don’t want to do (aka the “bitch’s job” as I’ve heard people call it). Grunt work may include tasks such as peeling the potatoes, cutting up a billion acetate liners for the pastry chef, sweeping the floors because everyone else has “more important things” to do, or plastic wrapping items until your hands go numb.

Most likely, these “bitches”, “slaves” (whatever you want to call them) will be culinary students, trying to meet the required number of externship hours needed to graduate. Some culinary schools send out students at the end of the program. And there are schools that do so right in the beginning of the program. I guess it gives the students a better idea to make the choice if they want to proceed with the program.  Hmmm….personally, I think the latter is possibly a more keen approach. It’s better to decide if the career path is not right for you from the start than to spend thousands of $$ only to decide in the end that it’s not the right choice for you.
While the regular kitchen members go through the motions of their regular routines, ….the extern kind of seems to float around without having a definite place in the order of things in the kitchen. During a mad rush, everyone else is hustling and bustling to keep the flow of things going. They know what they are supposed to do. And it’s not like the extern can just jump in there and do anything because they have not been trained to work the line or make the desserts.. And after he/she has finished doing a task of the bitch’s work and in need of more (but the chefs are too busy at this time to find more things for them to do…so they will just have to wait), they are most likely going to be standing around and observing the other chefs….watching their every move, learning different plating styles, learning how the kitchen they’re in, runs.

Don’t be too surprised that there are companies that thrive on these impressionable young aspiring chefs. It means a few months of FREE labor. And as soon as one batch of externs leave, another batch of fresh new externs will come onboard. So why even bother hiring, say, a prep cook (whose duties entail what culinary externs do for free)? Well, some externships are paid hours. And last time I’ve heard that the joke of a school I went to, is now requiring externships to be paid hours. I am not sure why they changed that since the time I was attending. They now require students to be paid a minimum of $50 a week (30 hours a week minimum).
I’ve seen that most students choose to do their externship at a place they’d like to eventually get hired at. And there are others that just want to gain experience somewhere but may not necessarily work there, and move on after they’ve completed their hours.

So if these externs provide free labor to the company, why are some chefs hesitant to even think twice about letting them in their kitchens? I have heard some horror stories!
Super-busy kitchens don’t have time to keep an eye on newbies 24-7. And the kitchen can be a fairly dangerous place to work in. Burns, knife cuts, slip and falls, pulling muscles seem to come with the territory. For someone who hasn’t become familiarized with the professional kitchen, they can be very susceptible to the common injuries. Employers don’t want to take liability for these nonpaid stages/externs when they get hurt.

I have heard a few chefs say they would never hire a culinary extern because of their “entitled attitudes”. Just because they have been culinary school educated, some students think that automatically entitles them to higher positions and wouldn’t dare disgrace themselves with doing any grunt work (even if they have no prior kitchen experience). One chef I know told me that one student actually refused to “peel potatoes”, claiming that, that was not what he spent his tens of thousands of dollars on culinary school to be doing. And apparently, that student was kicked out of the kitchen and was the last extern that chef let onboard.
Some chefs just don’t like to be bothered with teaching inexperienced young aspiring chefs. Since they don’t really know how to do anything, they can “get in the way” than being helpful.

The worst experience I’ve had with a freebie labor was at my last job. We were having a big event that kept us pretty busy for two straight days. My boss brought in this young man from God knows where and told me that he would be my assistant for the next two days. Considering that I had so much to do, I thought it would be a big help.
Apparently, this freebie had more years of experience than me, including in some high-end places. So I figured that he can probably teach me a thing or two. But umm…either he was lying about his experience or his work experience in the kitchen consisted of something else other than cooking.

I had about a couple hundred strawberries to dip. And my boss suggested that I have him help me with that. Not thinking much of it, I left him with the strawberry dipping task and went on to do something else. When I returned to check on him, OMG….they were like the ugliest chocolate dipped strawberries ever!  There was too much feet and just plain messy. So I showed him how to make one a bit purdier and let him at it. They started to look the way they were supposed to. But it was taking him all day long that I had to finish them up later.
And I didn’t even get to the part where he made me want to pull out all my hair. This guy told me he had experience with baking/desserts. I figured that making brownies would be a pretty simple task. It was stupid of me to just assume that this guy who I’ve never even seen before that day had the basic baking methods down. I was on the other side of the kitchen, busy preparing a jillion other items, and he kept coming to me every five minutes to ask for directions. I thought to myself, should I not have given him that task? But it’s just brownies. How badly can someone fuck up brownies, especially with someone with this guy’s experience?

But boy….I’ve learned a huge lesson that day. “Umm….can you come look at this? I think I did something wrong,” he comes and tells me. I went to go check and OMG! I looked inside the convection oven and the brownie batter in the sheet pans were oozing and exploding nonstop. They seemed to be out of control.  I have no idea what the heck he did to those brownies. I have never once seen brownies or any other baked items have that type of reaction before. He literally caused an explosion in the oven!
I was about to lose my mind. I still had a lot of things to do, and on top of that I probably had to redo the brownies and deal with cleaning up the explosion. I took out the brownies, which kept oozing and oozing nonstop as I was taking them out of the oven. I turned off the oven to let it cool a bit before attempting to clean up the huge mess.

I remember after finishing with everything that night, I was the one that stayed around all night to clean up the mess. The dishwasher was gone and so was everyone else. But I did not want to deal with the exploded disaster the next day. It would be so much harder to clean with everything all dried up. I spent a good two or three hours cleaning that oven, but it was still an ugly mess, - still reeked of burnt sugar and chocolate. Our convection oven was tiny, small enough to barely fit about three or four half sheet pans. Even after the labor intensive hours of cleaning, I still wasn’t able to manage to get it halfway cleaned. The next morning, two of my coworkers and I continued scrubbing away with whatever cleaning supplies we had. It was a hopeless attempt, as couldn’t scrub away the horrible burnt odor and had little time to finish our other tasks. Oh…and that so-called experienced fellow did not even show up that following day.  My boss said to me, “He said he’s not coming today. You were mean to him.” Well, I was kind of glad. I didn’t like having him around anyway.  I think my boss was kidding about the being mean part though lol. I probably wasn’t the nicest to him, but I was nowhere near mean to him either.
Anyways, at my current job, we get externs/stages here and there every once in a while. Whenever they come around, I beg my boss to not send any my way. I mean, much kudos for these guys wanting to learn…they gotta learn somewhere (just not with me lol). They should be learning from people that enjoy teaching/training other people. As for me, when I work, I just want to do my stuff, finish, then go home. I don’t really want to chit chat with anyone while I work or have my flow interrupted. That is just me.


  1. Oh you're going to scare away future chefs! I would totally be the eager apprentice willing to do kitchen slave work. I can see the interns as being 'in the way' though during busy moments. But I bet the interns feel worse being in the way. I can't believe the brownie exploded!! That's terrible that you had to clean up the mess.

    Merry Christmas Miss Kim!!

    1. Yeah, I have never seen anything like the brownie explosion. That was crazy.

      There are a lot of great chefs that have never been to culinary school. They started doing the slave work and worked their way up in the real kitchens. For people that are interested in learning the ropes, I think that volunteering free time is a good option that can save you tons of $$$. Of course some schools are more reputable than others....some are a joke tsk tsk (all a numbers know which school I'm talking about). Culinary school can help you gain book knowledge and stuff (again....not the you know which school because they ask multiple choice questions on tests that anyone with an ounce of common sense can pass without studying...but sadly, some people still manage to fail). So I have much respect for those trying to learn and gain experience, just as long as they stay away from me lol.

    2. Happy New Year's Eve Miss K -

      Hope to see more future posts from you soon !

    3. Happy New Year to you too!

  2. Entertaining account of your experiences with stagers. You should've insisted the Brownie-Master clean up his own mess. I've always figured most average intellect people can eventually learn what's needed in the kitchen, as long as they WANT to. What I have found the most difficult, is once they've learned the routine is getting them to be f-a-s-t. And some people seem to have one, and only one speed.
    The superior attitude culinary grads have seems to be one of the things they PAID good money to have instilled into their eager minds. LIke I dunno...
    Ego Training 101 maybe?
    They have to learn the hard way that most American culinary schools con them out of their hard earned student-loan dollars, not produce a ready-to-hire Master Chef.

  3. I had to make more brownies after he left, but the burnt odor from the oven was so potent that I couldn't continue without cleaning it further. It was just hours and hours of endless cleaning on my part. What a nightmare!

  4. This sounds like something that would be amazing at first glance and then secretly horrible. Free help is great but then it sounds like if they don't know what they're doing it ends up being MORE work for you. So it could either be a blessing or a curse. As far as your requests go they seemed completely reasonable too, dipping strawberries and making brownies is something most people that cook at home could easily do without a fancy degree...And cleaning ovens with burned food in them is a nightmare, I'd be upset/mean too!

    I feel like the whole free labor/intern/extern thing always happens in desirable industries. Like with fashion, all these people are vying to be free interns at Vogue or wherever and now that being a chef is so in I imagine there are many more people in culinary school. But at least in fashion you're not likely to cut a finger off or burn some place to the ground...Ya I think I would pass on externs too :/

    1. So true! It can be so helpful sometimes, and other times.....well a complete disaster! Haha doesn't the fashion industry have its danger risks too? I imagine that the sewing machines and such can be dangerous if not used properly.

      Lol that brownie disaster guy was a complete nightmare. I don't know where my boss found him. I have a feeling he lied about his experience. I will never forget that oven cleaning experience. I couldn't believe that such a tiny oven could be so time consuming to clean. I even had to take the oven apart to get the parts cleaned that had burnt brownie bits on them.


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