Culinary externship

July 25, 2012
Denise Simmons, Corporate Chef

I came across this blog post from a culinary student while doing menu research on the net.  I love her style-I LOL’d more than once.  I found it interesting on a couple other fronts as well-the requirements for a suitable externship location have changed dramatically in the *gulp* 25 years since I went to CIA.  I think this is a good thing, and will help students understand more of where the culinary profession is going & growing in the coming years.

I found her final notes quite interesting too.  One of the requirements CIA did have when I went is that we had to have at least one year practical experience in a commercial kitchen before we could even apply to attend the school.  It’s so important, particularly in this day of TV Chefs, for kids to understand the industry, and what they’re getting themselves into BEFORE dropping $80k on an education. 

Externship Interview

Come October, I will begin my six month externship. This is what we’ve been working towards. This is the part that counts. This is how they make or break a culinary student.

Our externship must be in a scratch kitchen (i.e. no frozen french fries) where the chef works on site. We need to work a minimum of 30 hours per week which is a frivolous requirement considering the average extern clocks 90 hours per week, usually at minimum wage. We are fed all of this information from the school’s Director of Marketing and Placement, a kind looking woman who is pushing seventy.

"There are two rules to your externship. Do not quit. Do not get fired." Okay, I thought, I can do that.

The search begins by securing a stage (pronounced: stah-je). A stage, for a culinary student, is a working (without pay) interview. A stage, however, can also be a "guest appearance" or "meeting of the minds" for industry veterans. Wolfgang Puck, for example, has staged at the French Laundry with Thomas Keller.

One of my stages (I did five total) was at a fancy-schmancy, award-winning joint, run by a European, James Beard award recipient. I arrived with sharp knives and a pressed, clean jacket in tow. The Golden Girl insisted on sharp, pressed and clean. She shared a story about one of her students who staged at a place in San Francisco.

He arrived at a fancy-schmany, award-winning joint, run by a tough chef and was asked to form a line with six other extern hopefuls, all of them from the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America, a generally esteemed culinary school). The chef walked down the line and immediately dismissed two students who had spots on their jackets. The chef then instructed the remaining candidates to unsheathe their chef knives. He quickly dismissed all but one student, the Golden Girl’s boy, since he had the sharpest knife.

I walked into the kitchen and counted nine men and zero women. Interesting, right? My first task was to peel the skin off of very tiny chanterelle mushrooms. It was tedious, but not terrible. I then chopped chives for about an hour. The chef had still not arrived by the time I finished. The chef walked into the kitchen, introduced himself to me and then one by one checked in with each of his peons to see how dinner preparations were coming along.

I didn’t do anymore prep work after the chives, but stood and watched the dinner service. These guys moved at a dizzying pace with remarkable precision. Their memory is equally astonishing. "Ordering four rib eye, one medium, two medium rare, one ruined (well done), two salmon, two halibut, three squab, one pork belly and one duck egg," the chef motored. Ten seconds later he’d shout out another set. And thirty seconds later, another. I was overwhelmed.

In the end, he offered me a job, which was exciting. I’m thinking about accepting it. My hesitation is that I’m simply not certain I’m cut out for this. I only worked 5 hours, one third of a normal shift, didn’t do any real work, and left with an aching back, neck and pair of feet. I left happy and excited, however, which hopefully counts for something. Its difficult to accept, but this externship could quite possibly be the beginning of the end.



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