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The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Get by With a Lot of Unpaid Labor

Without a significant volunteer staff, many prestigious restaurants could not function

Massimo Bottura and staff in the Osteria Francescana kitchen.
Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, the announcement of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list elicits the same round of responses. Chefs cheer their colleagues. Those who can afford it start booking tables for dinner. And the rest of us kvetch.

The usual complaints range from elitism (most of the restaurants are affordable only to the wealthy), sexism (this year’s list has only three restaurants led by women), and corruption (there are no rules against judges accepting free meals or travel from tourism boards). In Canada, we additionally complain about being left off the list entirely, an outrage that is hard to juggle with the above criticisms without seeming hypocritical. But our hallowed insecurity allows us to unironically grouse about not being members of a club we wouldn’t want to belong to.

What is unfair, underneath the veneer of awards, and the steady flow of international reservation requests they come with, is an ugly economic reality. Because many of these temples of culinary artistry cannot function without the work of stagiaires, their unpaid labor force.

A stage (pronounced: stajh, taken from the French word for “trainee”) is like a cooking internship, and the practice is much more common in elite, destination restaurants than local faves. Some cooks do this for a few days, but often the unpaid work lasts for weeks or months; depending on the kitchen, a stage might see themselves chopping up produce for mise en place or running entire stations during a night’s dinner service. Ostensibly, a cook who has already been in the field a few years, is staging to learn, to absorb new skills and knowledge from the kitchen’s full-time staff — because to be the best, you’ve got to learn from the best. I know a chef who staged at the French Laundry in California, and he doesn’t regret the unpaid, 14-hour days for a minute. It made him who he is. And for those who are able to do this, the experience is figuratively priceless. But in a literal sense, it does have a cost.

“Pursuing your dream and doing whatever it takes to work for the best restaurant, you put up any sacrifice,” says Abigail Ainsworth, a Toronto filmmaker currently shooting a documentary, tentatively titled Stage, about staging in the world’s best restaurants. “We’ve met people who sell their cars, break up with loved ones, really do whatever it takes to live their dream and work for these chefs.”

So these lists and competitions are kind of like that Saturday Night Live skit from the late ’80s, the all-drug Olympics, where steroids are not just allowed, but encouraged — because you can’t compete on this level without juicing. Without detracting from the talent, dedication, leadership, and vision of chefs like René Redzepi or Ferran Adrià, it’s hard to believe their businesses, which are neither schools nor charities, could perform at that level without the legion of unpaid help.

A spokesperson for the Culinary Institute of America — which regularly ranks near the top of “best culinary schools in America” lists — confirmed placing student externs in nine of the restaurants on the current 50 Best list: Eleven Madison Park (no. 1, New York City), Osteria Francescana (no. 2, Modena, Italy), El Celler de Can Roca (no. 3. Girona, Spain), Blue Hill (no. 11, Pocatino Hills, New York), Le Bernardin (no. 17, New York City), Pujol (no. 20, Mexico City), Alinea (no. 21, Chicago, Ill.), Astrid y Gaston (no. 33, Lima, Peru), Vendome (no. 47, Cologne, Germany).

In the case of the CIA, these are actual student externs, who get course credit for their 15-week job placement; as to the practice and prevalence of unpaid staging, the CIA declined to comment. But the stagiaires who spend six months working in luxury restaurants are usually not recent cooking school graduates. They’ve already been paying their dues and learning basic skills with years of low-paid work.

Having had the same conversation with a hundred chefs, I’ve heard all of the justifications for the unpaid staff. I’ve even had chefs suggest that, for the education they’re getting, stagiaires should be paying the restaurant. This isn’t a new idea. In the Middle Ages, children as young as seven were sent to work as apprentices, sometimes paying for to learn under a master craftsman of the highly controlled craft guilds, such as printmaking or goldsmithing.

But if we have to go to “once upon a time” to date the history of your employee practices, then your labor standards are literally medieval. The Industrial Revolution — which began in the late 18th century and stretched through the mid-19th century — created a demand for both skilled and unskilled workers that radically changed the labor market. The development of unions, the rise of professional education, and the idea that children should not be indentured slaves evolved the nature of apprenticeship. While informal internships persisted — copy boys, messenger boys, bobbin boys — they weren’t part of the post-secondary educational process until the late 1960s. Within a decade, universities systematized and incentivized internships through course credits, shifting the skill-building and networking opportunity into the mandatory experience it is today.

In the restaurant world, the basic case for staging is that it’s like going to school for free. It’s a reasonable enough proposition that I won’t argue against it: I went to cooking school and spent most of my 20s in restaurants. As I made the transition from cooking to writing, I did a couple stages. One was in a Japanese restaurant, the other French. Though brief, they were rewarding experiences that expanded my understanding of those cuisines and built lasting relationships. Every truly great chef I’ve ever known is also a great teacher.

Having said that, when we anoint status on restaurants as the best in the world, what are we celebrating when we award their level of performance while ignoring how they achieved it? Because and with all due respect to their artistry, many of these restaurants cannot do what they do without their enthusiastically free labor force that the average restaurant — even the multi-starred restaurants in major cities — aren’t able to recruit as readily. (Hospitality Magazine recently reported that Osteria Francescana receives 1,900 stage applications a year.)

In 2015, when Noma was ranked at number three, the Guardian reported that the Copenhagen restaurant employed about 25 paid cooks, with another 30 unpaid stagiaires. A memoir from a former stagiaire, published in Los Angeles Magazine, described 17-hour days. When El Bulli was in the number one spot, I interviewed Ferran Adrià, who told me that he had 25 stagiaires, a workforce that outnumbered his paid staff.

The insane precision of food in the World’s Best Restaurants, the tweezer chef micro-attention to detail, is only possible with a lot of bodies, and the practices of Adrià et al suggest that if you had to pay for all those bodies, you’d go out of business. (That’s to speak nothing of the fact that even paid staff likely couldn’t afford to regularly eat in these places otherwise, where the average price of a tasting menu, based on 2014 figures, is $220 per person.)

And it’s in perpetuating the culinary class divide that the system is most unfair. One of the amazing, egalitarian elements of restaurants has always been the low barrier to entry. If you want to become a doctor or lawyer, there’s no way around the requirement of a long and expensive education. But anyone with the right combination of humility and dedication can start a cooking career by knocking on the door of a kitchen. Because of that, restaurants that I’ve been in have a workforce diversity that would shame any law firm or hospital.

But the staging system at these global leaders absolutely gives an advantage to young people who come from families that afford them the ability to work for free. These positions, while educational, are also a gateway to success. It’s become pretty standard for the resume of any rising culinary star to include a stage in at least one of the world’s top restaurants. So while I encourage those who can afford it to go stage, who can afford it? For young people already living in expensive cities, earning minimum wage or less, how are they expected to save for six months in Spain? While many do somehow manage to save for these trips, it’s one more hurdle for low-income people, which means one more leg up for children of privilege. And that advantage contributes to a dominance of whiteness in these kitchens, as well as the benefits that come with the experience.

Beyond fairness, the legality of staging is quasi at best. The United States Department of Labor requires that for employers of unpaid interns, “the employer ... derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” In Ontario, where I live, the Ministry of Labour has a similar clause: “The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.”

Let’s not seek ambiguity in laws that are perfectly clear. If a stagiaire is preparing food that is sold in the restaurant, then they are an employee and subject to minimum wage laws. In Chicago, for example, Alinea restaurant co-owner Nick Kokonas notes that every one of his restaurant’s stages is paid.

But I know how often dodging that requirement happens around here. I fancy myself a fairly good husband. At least in terms of keeping our home clean, listening to my wife tell me about her day and making enough dinner so she has extra to take for lunch. But if I had 30 extra pairs of hands, what a husband I could be. Maybe even one of the world’s best husbands.

It’s hard to know how many cooks versus stagiaires are in any of the restaurants on the World’s 50 list. But if any of the restaurants are managing to do what they do without an army of stagiaires, they are actually competing on another level, in an entirely different league. It would be interesting to see that list: It’s likely shorter. Those who are able to scale such heights, to push themselves creatively while producing a torrent of finely-tuned mis en place every day, to hold every aspect of cooking, ingredients and service to the most demanding standards in the world, without the steroid-like advantage of unpaid, skilled labor, would, if there were an award for such a thing, truly deserve it.

Correction: This piece was updated on 4/14, 8:48 a.m. to reflect that Alinea pays its stages.

Corey Mintz is a food writer and columnist for the Globe & Mail, focusing on the intersection of food with politics, farming, labour, ethics and culture.
Editor: Erin DeJesus