I’ve wanted to do a stint in a professional kitchen for some time, so when the opportunity arose to do one at The Black Swan in Oldstead - a restaurant awarded a star from the Michelin Guide - I jumped at it.
What is a Stage?
A stage (pronounced ‘stahj’, from the French ‘Stagiaire’ meaning apprentice or intern) usually means one of two things in a professional kitchen: either an unpaid internship where a chef works one or multiple days in a host kitchen to demonstrate their skills in the hope that they’ll be hired, or employed chefs visiting another kitchen for professional development, learning about different operating models and expanding their knowledge of techniques to implement in their current roles.
My goal in spending a day at The Black Swan was to learn as much as possible about cooking and service and to implement my findings when operating popups and cooking for others.
I have no professional training as a chef but take an avid interest in food, spending much of my free time over the past fifteen years educating myself about the science of food and the art of service. Time in any professional kitchen, let alone The Black Swan, was a massive opportunity for me. I’m incredibly grateful to the team for showing me around, being patient, and making me feel welcome. My special thanks go to Callum Leslie, Head Chef at the restaurant. He was incredibly supportive throughout the experience, from our initial phone call to the day I spent in the kitchen with the team.
As a Software Engineer, I see many parallels between professional cheffing and engineering. Both environments require focus and detailed work not necessarily found in other industries. Throughout service, I was able to taste some of the food that was leaving the kitchen and each chef I met was excited by the quality of food served and the techniques used to create each dish. This level of obsession feels familiar to that of a developer; we have to hone our use of a language or tech stack and work with peers to share learnings and excite others with the possibilities.
If you’re not especially interested in food, it might be hard to appreciate the level of detail and thought that goes into a tasting menu. What might seem like a simple dish to one diner represents hundreds of hours of work to master complex techniques and tell the story of those ingredients in the best possible way. The chef might ask, ‘How can I get the cooking on this piece of fish more even? What texture will the diner experience with that first bite? How will grilling over different regional charcoals affect the flavour of the fish?’. This focus, obsession even, is something I and many engineers I’ve worked with share in our work. We must constantly interrogate the minutiae of our output.
The stark difference between these roles is the physical demand a cheffing job places on the body. My day in the kitchen started at 9am and finished around 11pm, with a short break. It’s a slog, but I was happy to work the hours. The structure of the day wasn’t mandated in this way, though the team is so focused that you get your head down on prep work until you’re in the position to break for a staff meal. This is a common routine whether you work in a Michelin-starred kitchen or a chain restaurant. You’re on your feet for the entire day, and there is a huge sense of camaraderie. Everyone is friendly and full of banter, but when it comes to it, the brigade works together to ensure everyone has their area prepped and ready for service. I absolutely loved the feeling of being part of it, even if only for a day. This is something I wish every diner would appreciate: the time and teamwork that goes into getting each meal to the table.
A learning opportunity
I could write so many posts on the things I learned, from how to get the best dough for morning pastries for those guests staying overnight to how to make the richest, most full-bodied stocks and sauces. I also learnt how to prepare Mallard for one of the restaurant’s most iconic dishes and how to nail the consistency of hollandaise to espuma onto a plate for a potato course. The produce was excellent, including Exmoor Caviar to pair with a potato custard and Lishman’s lardo dish, Mallard from Yorkshire supplier R&J, and vegetables and herbs grown on-site at the Oldstead farm. They’re big on their fermentation, too, transforming fruits and vegetables with numerous vinegars and preservation methods, taking the flavours of one season forward into the next.
If you’re not into food at this level, this might sound like a bunch of wanky wordsmithing. But to me, it was a masterclass in storytelling using exceptional produce and technique. I’m already excited to head back in the summer to meet the team again and learn how they’ve adapted the menu to suit the season and showcase the skills they have to offer in the kitchen. Participating in the kitchen for the day was humbling; I felt very much out of my depth, but this was exactly what I’d hoped for. To be pushed out of my comfort zone into a place of growth. I have so much to learn and the hunger to learn it.
Doing this yourself
If you ever get to step into another industry to observe for a bit, I’d highly recommend it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process. Ultimately there are very few barriers to doing something like this, however, there are a few things to consider:
- Decide what you want to get from the experience. Do you want to learn more technical skills? Maybe you’re interested in the operational side of the business. Or do you just want to be exposed to everything? It’s good to be clear on this before you approach someone.
- Try creating a shortlist of places you respect or that share similar values to you. If they respond well to you probing for answers to things while you’re a guest, that’s a reasonably good indicator that they might be open to helping further.
- I reached out initially via Instagram, and then we began speaking over WhatsApp. Don’t overthink how you contact them. The primary thing is to strike up a relationship.
- Be sure to check what’s expected of you on the day to ensure you leave the experience with what you wanted, but also they understand how you fit into their daily workflow.
And most importantly, if you do take something like this on, document it! It’s good to reflect on what you take away from an experience like this, and it might also spur others on to do the same.