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Paid Labor Is the Moral, Competitive Thing to Do

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Just pay your interns and stages

Jake Lindeman

This post originally appeared in EIC Amanda Kludt’s From the Editor newsletter, a roundup of her favorite food and restaurant stories — both on and off Eater — each week. Read the archives and subscribe now.

In a previous newsletter I mentioned the problematic aspects of unpaid internships in the media world. At Eater, we used to hire plenty of unpaid interns. As many as I could find time to manage. For years. But as we grew and joined a larger company, we realized we needed to pay people, not just because it’s the proper, legal thing to do, but because it’s the moral, competitive thing to do. If we only let people who can afford to work for free get their feet in the door, we’ll never widen our talent pool. We’ll never have diverse perspectives on our staff. We’ll never be truly competitive.

Until reading Corey Mintz’s piece for us this week, I hadn’t applied this line of thought to restaurants. Unpaid stages (interns) just seemed like a part of life for high-end restaurants. Young chefs get free training and knowledge sharing from the best of the best in the world and don’t have to commit to or compete for a full-time job. Meanwhile, restaurant owners gain access to a new potential talent pool and a little free labor.

But the same problems arise in both industries. Mintz notes that while there is great diversity at the entry level of restaurants — “anyone with the right combination of humility and dedication can start a cooking career by knocking on the door of a kitchen” — the kinds of people who can stage at these global restaurants and thus get to the next level in their careers are “young people who come from families that afford them the ability to work for free.” These people get access to skills and knowledge and make connections with influential restaurateurs, chefs, and customers who might help them later.

I don’t necessarily agree with Mintz’s argument that restaurants with stagiaires have an unfair competitive advantage when it comes to awards and accolades, because sometimes managing unpaid volunteers is more trouble than it’s worth. But I do think free labor is a system that exacerbates the diversity and gender imbalance at the top.

Some restaurants — Alinea, notably — do pay their stages. And I hope more follow suit.

noma mexico
René Redzepi leads a staff meeting at Noma Mexico

Opening of the Week: Noma Mexico

Who is behind it?: Noma chef René Redzepi, Hija de Sanchez owner and former Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez, and the whole Noma crew.

What is it?: It’s the third-ever Noma pop-up, wherein Copenhagen-based Redzepi and company decamp to a new city, set up shop, and open a restaurant for a predetermined amount of time. The idea is to bring the Noma ethos of hyper-locality to different regions for geographically dispersed trophy hunters and bon vivants. American Express and Colibri Boutique Hotels supported the project, but it will cost diners $600/head for dinner and pairings, plus tax and service charge.

Where is it?: East coast cool-kid vacation destination Tulum, Mexico.

When did it open?: It opened on Wednesday, April 12 and will wrap up on May 28.

Why should I care?: It’s quite the spectacle. Look at his grill! Check out the jackfruit! I’m excited just to see who will dine there and how they will document it so all their friends and family know they were there. Also it’s kind of fun because it looks like one of those on-the-beach tourist traps you dine at while on vacation in Aruba, but actually the food is good, and it’s a million dollars.


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