Our regular contributor Renée Suen was recently invited to put away her fork and don an apron to stage at Splendido (a culinary stage is a brief and usually unpaid educational stint at a restaurant). Renée is an ambitious home cook, buther professional experience consists mostly of high school summers working at a soup and sandwich shop and weekends slinging bubble tea during university. Can she handle the heat of 12 hours in a professional kitchen? Will chef de cuisine Patrick Kriss make her cry? Find out below, and check out our behind-the-scenes gallery at the end.Words and pictures by Renée Suen
12:23 a.m. (the night before): Chef Kriss messages me to make sure I’m still game. I send my confirmation and tell him about my borrowed (but new!) slip-resistant shoes, which are a half-size too big for me. He laughs at me.
10:55 a.m.: I arrive at Splendido’s service entrance and recognize Kevin Jeung (who moonlights at The Cookbook Store) among the eight cooks waiting nearby. I learn the names of my soon-to-be colleagues (including Vanessa, a new intern from Humber College, and Alain, one of the chefs de partie). I also learn that there’s a stagiaire from The County General, Splendido’s sister restaurant, who was accepted to stage on the condition that he shave his beard of five years. He did.
11:08 a.m: Kriss arrives and I follow the chefs into the bowels of Splendido’s two-level kitchen. Everyone puts on their chef’s whites and gets busy at their stations; I feel like a lost sheep. Kriss sets me up with garde-mangers Andrew and Rob, who give me the glamorous job of taking fresh herbs and packaging them for proper storage.
11:40 a.m.: My herb-picking instructions: pick out the best leaves, leaving about six millimetres of stem, then gently wash and dry them and pack them for storage.
12:02 p.m.: The entire brigade congregates at the bar for a brief (I stick to the side). Everyone’s equipped with a notebook, a pen and plastic containers of coffee. Kriss goes through the game plan for the day, the special menus planned for the week and the upcoming TBD dinner he’s hosting. Staff members acknowledge their duties with a respectful “Oui.”
12:21 p.m.: Rob comes by and tells me that stems aren’t necessary on the mint leaves. I have to go back through all my leaves to pick the stems off. At least I haven’t burned anything down yet. Meanwhile, Kriss works on some brussels sprouts taken from the garde-manger station and inspects the deliveries coming into the kitchen. He also tests out a new dish of cold cherrywood-smoked oysters.
1:31 p.m.: I’m now on my last batch of herbs, blue cress. I’m a little nervous about the low yield. Kriss looks over at my station and tells me my cress leaves aren’t blue enough. Sigh.
2 p.m.: Executive chef and co-owner Victor Barry joins us in the kitchen and I graduate to using a knife (I don’t own any knives good enough for the work here, so I have to borrow one from Alain, which makes me feel awkward; chefs have intimate relationships with their knives). I prep shallot rings, trim endive spears and slice compound butter into half-moons for the fried egg course. Barry suggests I warm the metal tools with hot water to ease the process. Meanwhile, Barry and Kriss break down rabbits. Their knife work is breathtaking to behold.
4 p.m.: Oran(who’s off that day) swings by the kitchen to say hi. There’s a photo shoot happening in the dining room, and most of the cooks are helping prepare the plates in addition to getting their prep done. I overhear cooks talk about making boudin tomorrow. One of them will be coming in to learn despite the fact that it’s his day off. I suddenly feel lazy.
4:15 p.m.: Barry brings some freshly plated foie gras mousse from the photo shoot and tells me to dig in. Feeling guilty about indulging while everyone else is working away, I try to share with Alain (I was using his knife after all), but he’s too polite to accept. So I scarf it down, savouring every insanely rich bite. Later on, Rob gets his own plate of foie and I feel a little less guilty.
4:53 p.m.: Carlo Catallo (co-owner and general manager) invites me to the dining room for the front-of-house staff briefing. Matthew Roulston (manager and sommelier) runs through the evening’s guest list—a quiet night of 24 guests over two hours. I’m awed at how well they know each customer’s particularities (I start to wonder what my file says). Kriss briefs the front of house on new menu items, including a steak course that’s served with fried smoked oysters and tarragon jus. The wait staff take diligent notes and ask some very specific clarifying questions on the ingredients and techniques employed. I’m impressed: these are not the waitrons of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
5:24 p.m.: Staff meal! Tonight it’s falafels with various pickles made by Matt. Everyone digs in. I share the back stairwell with Alain for two minutes before Kriss comes by and asks him to start making rabbit stock. In the eight minutes it takes me to eat, half the staff have already buzzed by to start evening service. I won’t even try to describe how busy the dishwasher was. I head down to the pastry kitchen and ask Jeung if I can help. He shows me how to make chocolate branches.
5:58 p.m.: The first amuses are sent out to the dining room.
6:16 p.m.:Kriss presents Barry with one of the sunchoke chip–encrusted smoked oysters he’d created earlier. It gets the big boss’s approval. Kriss pushes the other bite over to me. It’s really good: the soft, creamy body is enriched with sweet cherrywood aromas and surrounded by a delicate crust. I think I let out a too-loud giggle, which leads Barry to suggest that I should stage more often.
6:29 p.m.: The first big surprise of the night: Catallo comes into the kitchen with an impromptu request for caviar complete with traditional garnishes. After a brief discussion with Kriss, Barry figures the off-menu request will take 25 minutes to fill. (It will also cost the diner $170.) Barry starts to plan the plate, making sure he’s got buckwheat flour for the blinis.
6:32 p.m.: Catallo returns to the kitchen with the go-ahead for the caviar order but indicates that the customer prefers toast to blinis. Barry moves from the pass to the kitchen to trim the toasts himself.
6:48 p.m.: Disaster! One of the potato-leek amuses tips over, spilling onto the pass. Right away, a server who was just passing by grabs a towel to take care of the mess. Teamwork!
7:20 p.m.: Table 15 orders sides to share as their starter. Barry and Kriss decide to send the couple a pair of chestnut agnolotti on the house.
7:30 p.m.: Surprise No. 2: the kitchen is notified that one guest is a strict vegan who also happens to be gluten intolerant (the restaurant hadn’t been warned). Barry sends Andy to Metro for quinoa, telling him to take Shadowfax, his bike.
8:50 p.m.: We’re deep in service, but the room is surprisingly calm and everyone is incredibly polite to each other. I’m starting to rethink the horror stories I’ve come to expect based on Kitchen Confidential. I like how the crew answers “Oui” in unison every time Barry or Kriss calls out an order.
9:13 p.m.: One of the runners brings dessert up from the pastry kitchen. Kriss calls Jeung on the kitchen line to ask about the out-of-place meringue shards on the cheesecake course (no, really). Not to worry: this was Jeung’s gluten-free interpretation of the dessert.
9:42 p.m.: The last plate is expedited, and I get the bosses’ approval to go help with the kitchen cleanup. Hooray!
10:35 p.m.: Splendido’s vacuum sealer is broken, so Andy and I walk trays of food across the street to the Harbord Room, where stagiaire Rob is vac-packing them up. I’m surprised to learn there are actually three garde-mangers, since the amount of prep work required for Splendido’s plates is enormous. Lesson: the work I did earlier barely scratched the surface.
11:48 p.m.: Some of the chefs head out for after-service beers, but Kriss, Justin and I decide to call it a night. It’s only then that I realize I’ve been on my feet for nearly 12 and a half hours straight. What an incredible day.
So what did I learn during my trial by fire? To survive in a highly demanding kitchen like Splendido’s, you need careful organization and unwavering precision. Multi-tasking is expected, as is the ability to take orders and follow directions. Being a chef is not only physically gruelling, but mentally taxing and often emotionally draining. Still, I was inspired by the humility and camaraderie in the kitchen. This was not at all like a scene from Kitchen Confidential (which, I’ll admit, had scared the bejeezus out of me). Instead, I met a group of hardworking, exceptionally well-mannered and friendly people. It really does take a certain special personality to cut it in the kitchen, and those of us used to filling the seats in a dining room are all the better because of it.
17 thoughts on “Foie gras, surprise caviar orders and one tight ship: my 12-hour stage at Splendido”
What an awesome experience which I am sure all foodies envy you of!
Hope we can see a series of your staging experience in Toronto soon!
Wow this must have been really fun, if not really tiring at the same time.
I think it should be noted that a lot of the restaurants Tony Bourdain worked at were much larger than and perhaps not as haute cuisine as Splendido.
Absolutely wonderful piece of an inside behind the scenes review of line on the line in the kitchen. Thanks for being so brave and taking on this task. So much romanticism about being involved in the rest business. At the end of the it’s a whole lot of hard work in the pursuit of excellence and happy customers.
(In the real world) Never would you dare kid with the chef about your shoes being too big or whatever. that casual attitude would be snuffed out immediately-no exceptions. They knew about the story and were on their best behavioursically.
This might be the silliest article i’ve ever wasted my time on.
‘Emotionally taxing’? How were you able to gather that insight? YOU ‘WORKED’ ONE SERVICE!!! They must be chuckling to themselves (as I am).
Maybe you understand Navy SEAL training too because you toured the barracks.
Next time work a few weeks at least…then tell about your ‘inspirations.’ hahahaha
Be nice. She just wanted to see what it was like and went in with an open mind. Everyone in the industry had to start somewhere with their first day, including you, and I’d bet it went a lot like this article. I wonder if your sous was “chuckling” to himself the first day he watched you cluelessly pick herbs.
Wow. What an experience. What respect for the food and for the customers. All I can say is ‘Wow’.
I can’t help but have a laugh at this article.
Being a stagier is one of the most gruelling and emotionally abusive parts of becoming a cook. You got a chance to eat and sit down during those 12 hours? How quaint. Did you get a chance to not be able to afford your rent because you’re an apprentice?
I feel like this is taking the unintentional piss at us cooks. I like Renee’s work and I think she does a good job.
I wish you were doing this with the intention of becoming a cook, not to “dabble” in our profession. I would welcome you with open arms, but you’re either in or you’re not.
Having read this through, and noting that Renee is a writer with no culinary school experience and no stated desire to work in a professional kitchen, I’m gathering that the point of this stage was to offer Toronto Life readers a glimpse into one of Toronto’s better restaurant kitchens, rather than some sort of expose on the life of a stage. So you’re a culinary grad looking to build a career as a chef, and you have to stage for several weeks at a time for no money. So they work you hard during your stage. So you struggle financially as a young person just entering the workforce. So what. Most of us have been through similar experiences working internships in our chosen fields during or after school. Suck it up and quit pissing all over a well-written article from someone who’s a journalist, not a chef.
haha, wow, cooks who moonlight as internerds at 2am after service, grumpy about their lives.
Of course this was a fluff piece, but again, it was still interesting to rich white folk (TL readers). She’s a known customer/writer to the restaurant and will be in the future, no way they’ll yell at her. Did you really want to read about her getting a second degree burn on her arm that puffed up like a balloon because she didn’t know how to clean the deep fryer properly?
Stagiers usually get the shittiest jobs in the kitchen. Mind numbing work like scrubbing 200 oysters in freezing cold water, getting your hands chewed up by the sharp shells. Yes that part was inaccurate, they took it easy on her. Authenticity wasn’t the agenda on order, showcasing the kitchen’s precise order def was.
I’ve staged at Splendido a few years ago, and it is a pretty quiet/tight ship. That part is certainly true. It’s a good place to learn for sure, closest to a Michelin star restaurant in Toronto imo.
The good thing out of this, she has gotten perspective on the harsh life of line work. Perhaps it’ll change her perspective as a future diner. Maybe instead of leaving a fat tip that cooks never see, she’ll bring a 6 pack of delicious Southern Tier ipa for the BOH.
Shining light on the foot soldiers is always a good thing, thank you Renee.
I am a total internerd. That’s for sure.
I’ve known Renee for a while through passing and I really love her work. She’s an excellent photographer who works hard and she is really passionate about food. It’s not her fault I’m jaded from overworking myself.
I really like the Splendido’s goals board. I think one or two Michelin stars would be well deserved.
This must be a good topic in order to generate all these high quality comments!! I am just a simple diner who enjoys food and dining experience. I hope this will turn into a series covering not just fining dining like Splendido but also other classes/types of restaurant..with her gettin injured in the kitchen of course. Having a good glimpse in what’s going on in the kitchen would definitely help diners to appreciate what’s being served to them in addition to the presentation and taste of the food. I have a question though — “Maybe instead of leaving a fat tip that cooks never see, she’ll bring a 6 pack of delicious Southern Tier ipa for the BOH” — I thought tips are shared amongst server, kitchen crews and bar?
correction: WITHOUT her getting injured in the kitchen
It’s up to a restaurant to tip out the BOH, most places don’t. Servers certainly don’t like working at places that tip out the BOH, it takes a chunk out of their pie. Servers for most restaurants are not in it for a career, it’s a quick money maker that allows them the freedom to do other things. There are exceptions though, Adley at the old Splendido was a gem.
Even if BOH does get tipped out, it’s chump change as it’s only a token 2% or something, split amongst all the cooks.
I do like the concept of restaurants that allow kitchen staff to work one shift a week as a server. Incanto in SF does it, just gives cooks a little breathing room in terms of income. Yours Truly has cooks serving food and describing dishes, it’s a good thing.
Again, if you want to reward BOH, buy them drinks. They’ll need it to dull the aches & pains of a long day.
This piece is a lot of fun to read – well written and beautifully photographed. I love the tongue-in-cheek attitude Renee uses to describe a glimpse into the life of a stagier
To the naysayers and slightly jaded commenters here and in the twitterverse, I would argue the opposite – one respects the BOH more after reading this piece. It’s a great light hearted look at a restaurant and chef that she clearly admires. It’s a fabulous point of view for Splendido and Patrick Kriss that highlights their commitment to their goals and to their patrons. I’m sure the attention this piece will garner will be appreciated.
For a regular TL reader, and an extremely frequent restaurant diner, it gives a bit more insight and understanding into a world that is usually hidden behind a pair of swinging doors. I highly doubt the average diner has ever put much (if any) thought into what goes on behind the scenes and it’s time they did so that they can fully appreciate the care and effort that goes behind the creation of a beautiful plate of food. We’ve all known those ultrademanding clients who expect the world handed to them on the gold dusted plate. Perhaps, if nothing else, this piece will help to bring down their sense of entitlement a notch and help them enjoy their food and not scarf it down as an afterthought to the business they’re discussing.
Stageing/interning regardless of the profession/career is never glamourous or fun, but everyone has to pay their dues and start from the bottom in the hopes that they will gain the experience they need to follow their dreams. Is it ever fun to mop the floors or scrub 200 oysters, heck no, but in the long run a professional chef will be able to see the positive side and focus on the knowledge they’ve gained themselves. I’ve chatted with many chefs who have staged around the world, and if anything they’ve spoken fondly of their experiences and extremely well of what they’ve learned.
Well done, Renee! I applaud your courage and I certainly hope TorontoLife puts out more of this type of feature (online and definitely in print)!
ASER Thanks for the Insight! I do like the idea of having BOH (provide them with some training for FOH) to come work as serving staff one shift a week …not only they get a breather but also get to interract with diners (especially the regulars) and see what they think of the dishes as feedback and idea generation.
People who say that staging is equivalent to other internships in other fields having never worked let alone staged in a professional kitchen. Staging could be a 12 hour shift or it could be as long as a few months, it could be menial commis work such as picking herbs or dicing shallots, or it could be actually working the line or at a station. People watch too much television, and think they can fully understand something without every actually experiencing it. Now to be fair to Renee, she is not a professional cook , and she claims throughout the piece that this career path is difficult and not for everyone. The stagiere itslef was not to different from most stages I myself have been on and honestly , minus the staff knowing she was their for TL, it was pretty close to what a true stage is. You work for free, try not to screw up and stay out of the way of people trying to do their jobs. I hope Renee does other stages throughout other Toronto kitchens and some of the younger , unknown cooks who work 10-12 hour shifts can get some love and exposure they deserve .
From A young chef
To DJN and Kristina Groeger.
Chill out. Why do cooks always have to be so self-righteous and rude? It makes our profession look like it is inhabited by a bunch of egocentric brutes.
What restaurants have you worked or staiged at? It seems like they were not good places to work. For one, they apparently taught you that writing unfairly critical posts on an article that was POSITIVELY highlighting our line of work was a good idea.
As for the specifics of what you both said about your experiences with the restaurant industry, please, if you will, let me go over why you guys have either not worked enough, or not been in the right places.
First, you can talk casually and joke around with your chefs if you are in a healthy work environment. The fact that you think you cannot, leads me to believe that you watch too much Gordon Ramsay. I spent the last year and half as a chef de partie at a One Michelin star restaurant in Denmark and trust me….I was never once yelled at or never once felt like I couldn’t have a good time with the head Chef. And that has been my experience in almost every restaurant I have worked at. Full stop.
Second, staiging is abusive and hard? As compared to what? Where else do you have the opportunity to learn for free? How many aspiring basketball players do you know can just email the head coach of an NBA team and practice with them for a few weeks or a few months?
Yet, that is exactly what we are able to do as cooks. We can send an email to some of the best restaurants in the country or world and, without so much as an interview, their chefs will take you to help in their kitchens. Be grateful for this.
Any staige who says their time at a good restaurant is boring, tiring or that “they aren’t learning anything” is a crap cook. They either can’t observe while doing prep or they are so bad at doing their jobs that the chefs don’t give them anything interesting to do because they can’t trust them.
Third, the chefs you staiged for didn’t let you taste the food that came out of their kitchen? WHAT???? Seriously, where have you been working? My first two staiges in Denmark I got the ENTIRE tasting menu sent to me while I was prepping. The same can be said when I staiged in Vancouver. My last staige in Toronto in December, they gave me one dish of my choosing every day, for a month. One of the major points of staiging is to see how the things you are doing throughout the day effect the final dish that goes out to the customer. Either the chefs you were with didn’t like you, didn’t think you did a good job or genuinely did not give a crap about you.
Fourth, who cares if you can’t pay rent? Why does that make cooks so special? There are plenty of solutions to that problem: how about going to staige at the many, many, many fine restaurants that can be found in the countryside and offer room and board for their staigers (you can find tons in the States and Europe, I am sure the plane ticket would be cheaper than trying to make rent month after month working your “slave” job).
Or maybe you can cut down on the binge drinking and drug indulgence and cigarettes that are perennial black holes for cooks’ pay cheques. That will save you tons of money too. Or maybe you don’t really need that tv you just bought or maybe that 3G crap on our iPhone wasn’t that necessary, or maybe…aw, well, you get the point. There are always ways to get you through the month if you really want it to happen.
And further, where were you an apprentice, by the way? Canada I am assuming. We don’t even have a well-established culture of apprenticeship here. You go to school for 6 months, a year or two years max. That is nothing. Try going to Europe where you have to work as an apprentice for one quarter of minimum wage for four years before you can be hired as a chef. If you can’t get money together for a two year stint at school, you should learn basic accounting, not go on about how tough life as an apprentice is.
Sorry for this long post, but holy god in heaven I hate it when cooks make our profession look bad.
For new cooks starting I would have this to say: be humble. Travel and learn as much as you can. Treat your craft with professionalism and dignity. But always remember that being a cook doesn’t mean you have to have a big-ass chip on your shoulder.
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