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Fine-Dining Star Blaine Wetzel on Ending the Willows Inn Stage Program

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“It wasn’t like we were relying on free labor for the restaurant to operate”

Inside the Willows Inn kitchen
Bill Addison

The Willows Inn, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most acclaimed fine-dining destinations, recently shut down its stage program after being ordered by the Department of Labor to pay $149,000 in unpaid wages and damages to 19 kitchen employees. Staging (from the French for “trainee”) is common in the highest echelon of the food world, as many young cooks — the Willows Inn’s two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Blaine Wetzel included — work unpaid stints at famous restaurants to network, gain experience, and pad their resumes. But in the U.S., this kind of unpaid or underpaid labor is technically illegal, and the Department of Labor seems to be cracking down.

The story broke as Eater was wrapping a tangential piece about the challenges of operating restaurants in remote locations like the islands off the coast of Washington, so in an interview with Wetzel, the discussion turned to staging. Below is the full portion of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Is it hard for you to staff such a remote, seasonal restaurant?
Blaine Wetzel: No, we have a fantastic staff, we just have some of the best and brightest in the industry.

Most of the [staff here] worked in some of the best restaurants in the country. The average age is about 30, everyone has years of experience in top restaurants. Most people like the job so much, and the island, that they stay. We don’t really experience a lot of turnover. We also offer a really competitive compensation. People enjoy the culture and environment. They stay for usually several years.

So the off-season isn’t a deterrent?
It’s really been a huge benefit for this industry, this niche of fine-dining restaurants that are tasting menu only. This type of restaurant is such an ambitious and passion-filled part of the industry, it’s usually combined with a strenuous schedule. I think us having the time off every year is a real benefit in that it offers some balance in a field where that’s rarely the case.

As well as being open four days a week some of the year, we’re closed for three months. That’s part of the reason we really get the best in the industry applying for positions here, because it’s a really unusual combination. Most independent restaurants like this cannot survive, especially in the U.S., without being in a major city. Staffing is one of the best parts of the job: I get to meet new people and work with my friends.

You recently shut down your staging program. Is that going to cause staffing issues?Not really. I came up staging. I got the chance to travel the world and work in great restaurants, being inspired, and eventually getting a position in a restaurant and learning a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to. It has been a norm in the industry.

I think in this country, maybe times are changing, because it is kind of a gray area: someone who’s passionate and wants to be in the kitchen and try to learn as much as possible but doesn’t really have specific responsibilities. In the U.S., in order to be in line with regulations, they need to be from an accredited school, doing a workshop program, or hired as a normal employee. So we’ve just hired more chefs instead of stagiaires. [There is also] a minimum wage internship.

[Now when chefs] that were coming from out of the country [reach out] with any requests, we just say we’ve discontinued staging programs but we accept internships from schools. As far as staffing levels it hasn’t been an issue.

The Willows Inn
Bill Addison

Will this ripple throughout the industry in the U.S.? Is the DOL cracking down?
That was made clear, that this has been a focus nationally. In conversations with the agent, she’d been specifically assigned to target staging. As soon as I learned that staging — something that was common practice in the industry — is technically not legal, we discontinued that. However, a slightly altered version of that [would be], for instance, a workshop program. People [would] pay $200 to come for a month and have a syllabus, activities, and perform a similar function. Or if someone’s coming from an accredited school. So, making sure that we’re to the T with everything as far as regulations are concerned is important.

So you’re not worried about the cost of paying for that labor?
We didn’t use a stagiaire to replace a hired staff member. It wasn’t like we were relying on free labor for the restaurant to operate. These were people who were young aspiring chefs and cooks from around the country who wanted exposure to what we were doing and opportunity to learn. So we’d often just have one extra hand in the kitchen to show what’s going on. So, no, there hasn’t been any sort of impact as far as staffing or payroll or something. In fact, we haven’t had anybody staging in 2017.

So some people could continue to stage for free if they’re willing to pay for the privilege?
We haven’t done a workshop program yet — unclear if it’s an avenue we would consider, just giving an example of what is acceptable for staging. As soon as we learned that distinction, we adjusted our operation. It is such a common practice in the industry, it’s hard to imagine. Maybe it’s a practice that is dated and aging and not going to be something that is as regular in the future.

It seems like staging might make more sense in some European countries where people have universal healthcare and can be more secure working for free.
I agree. If there’s a conflict, it won’t last that long. If there’s not, I think it’s been a time-honored apprenticeship and tradition in kitchens.

How do you respond to the Department of Labor’s accusation in a press release that you were having stagiaires do things like paint the exterior of buildings?
I think that was a misquote: It said painting the exterior of the building, that never happened. We’re in a hundred-year-old restaurant here, with an older kitchen, wood floors that are beautiful, wood windows, and cabinetry, so we paint the kitchen two, three times a year. It doesn’t take long, we always have gallons of paint on hand. At the end of the week everyone rolls up their sleeves and puts a coat of paint on the kitchen.

I think the wording was intentionally harsh. With wording like “$50 a day for up to 14 hours a day,” combined, that’s not true. There were days a person would work 14 hours, and there were times a person made $50 a day, but that would be otherwise someone who was working for free but got an allowance, food paid for, housing paid for. And a separate person might be working 14 hours a day, a crazy day, but combined [it was] not the case. There’s been no issue as far as payroll for staff.

So you think the press release was intentionally misleading?
It was kind of made to sound like staff were being underpaid, but in fact it completely revolved around stagiaires. “Painting the exterior of the building” was outrageous, along with the slave labor verbiage they used. It’s unfortunate that the verbiage that was used describing the situation made it seem as if we were underpaying staff, and kind of abusing someone who came to learn. But both are not the case.

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