Aaron Tidman does a lot of pro bono work as an attorney, but last year he tried something different. For one day, he was a pro bono squid cleaner at Rose’s Luxury, the wildly popular restaurant on Washington’s Barracks Row.
Tidman, 35, an amateur cook from Bethesda, had seen an appeal for kitchen help on Rose’s Facebook page. Impulsively, he dashed off an e-mail to chef-owner Aaron Silverman: “I’m not a professional chef, but I enjoy cooking at home and I love eating at your restaurant. I realize you’re looking for a full-time cook, but if you could use any part-time help, I’d love to learn from the best.”
Tidman got a response, and before he knew it, he was being passed off to chef de cuisine BJ Lieberman, who handles stages — a word Tidman had to look up.
Pronounced “stahj,” it comes from the French word “stagiaire,” or trainee, and has become the term for a system of unpaid apprentices at many of the world’s best restaurants.
And so it was that the litigator, then working at Mintz Levin (he has since moved to San Francisco), found himself working a full Saturday shift at Rose’s. Besides cleaning the squid, he picked herbs, braided challah and deboned chicken thighs.
“There were lots of squid: hundreds, thousands, I lost count,” Tidman says. “They showed me how to pull off the beaks and long tentacles before washing them.” He commended the staffers for their patience, noting that there was none of the screaming you see on TV restaurant “reality” shows. “At least there was no yelling downstairs,” he says. “All of the senior chefs were upstairs; it was sort of like ‘Downton Abbey.’ ”
Tidman is not the only outsider who has moonlighted in the kitchen of a highly lauded restaurant. Restaurant Eve and the Inn at Little Washington have had the occasional kitchen crasher; so, too, have restaurants in other cities. What varies is how those coveted experiences come to pass.
Barry Wiggins got to cook at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria after cultivating a friendship with chef-owner Cathal Armstrong over 11 years of loyal patronage.
“Barry and his girlfriend at the time were very regular guests,” Armstrong says. “They were fans of ours; then the friendship got more serious. If we were going to the James Beard Awards, they’d attend with us.”
Wiggins, 54, a District resident and the chief operating officer for Cognicion LLC, has staged four times at Restaurant Eve, and the first time was particularly memorable. “My 50th birthday present from chef Armstrong was to come be free labor,” he says. His day began at 8 a.m. Saturday and concluded at 1:30 a.m. Sunday: “They don’t make enough Advil for me to do that very often.”
That first stage day involved prep work and careful observation, but his duties increased with time. Most recently, on May 1, Wiggins staffed the meat station through dinner service. He seared steak, sweetbreads and more, testing internal temperatures and even plating. Armstrong and sous-chef Luis Echeverria stayed nearby, coaching him and monitoring quality.
“While it’s fun for some guests, it isn’t a game,” Armstrong says. “People are paying money for dinner. They expect a professional hand at the stove.”
Wiggins left the kitchen blistered and blissful. “Chef said, ‘If I ever need a meat cook, you actually might do.’ That’s the best I’ll get out of him.”
Gourmands who don’t have an entree into a chef’s inner circle can turn to the Inn at Little Washington, where for the right price you can be outfitted and put to work. The inn’s Stagiaire Program is available to amateurs only and costs $1,000 for a one-day experience, $1,800 for two and $2,400 for three.
Neal Lawson of Arlington, president and co-founder of iDiscovery Solutions, has tackled the three-day program twice. The passionate home cook is drawn to the program not only for the ample face time with chef-owner Patrick O’Connell but also for the personalized experience. After a broad-based first day, stages are asked to identify skills they’d like to bolster on days two and three. For Lawson, 43, it was building sauces, plating, making pasta and pastry.
O’Connell emphasizes that he’s not teaching a cooking class. “It’s not me saying, ‘We’re going to do four recipes today,’ ” he says. “They want to get the feel of a professional kitchen, so we put them side by side with a person who might have been doing the task they’re demonstrating for six years.”
Lawson says he’ll be back. “It wasn’t cheap, but for the experience you get, I felt it was reasonable,” he says. “If you’re passionate about cooking, think of it as an investment in becoming better at something you adore.”
Tidman, who says he’s itching to get into other professional kitchens, has reservations about the inn’s program because of the price point, and even that there’s a price at all. “Patrick is a superstar in the culinary world,” he acknowledges. “To be able to meet him and cook with him is a true culinary fantasy camp. But it’s a lot of money. I’d rather go eat there.”
Restaurants up the East Coast also sparingly allow loyal customers backstage. Kevin Sbraga, a “Top Chef” winner and owner of two restaurants in Philadelphia, let a friend, Evan Bryant, a construction company president, stage at his restaurant Juniper Commons, which has since closed. He does that only for people he knows well.
“It’s never someone I’ve met once, twice or even five times,” he says. “There are major liability issues, but I always talk to my attorney and insurance agent.”
Executive chef Michael Lomonaco at Porter House New York asks stages to sign waivers. “We’ve had people who come in for a night or two just to see what it feels like to be in a restaurant,” he says. “We’ll give them an opportunity, as long as they a sign a waiver.”
The 250-seat steakhouse allows restaurant regulars as well as young people with culinary curiosity to test the waters. “People want to see what it’s like on the other side,” Lomonaco says. “If we can play a role in bridging amateur interest with professional operation, we do.”
Aside from liability concerns, there are other downsides to having untrained help in the kitchen. 2941 Restaurant executive chef Bertrand Chemel got many stage requests when he taught cooking classes on location. “It’s always flattering,” he says, “but it’s time-consuming for people in your kitchen. If you do it too much, it’s a distraction.”
The spark in behind-the-scenes interest is new, according to Armstrong. First, diners wanted to know where their food came from. Then they wanted to know how it was prepared. Now they yearn to prepare it.
“When I started in the industry, there was separation between the back of the house and the guest,” he says. “Now there are requirements for interacting with guests. It’s a distraction, certainly, but we must do our jobs.”
Fortunately, these rare recreational stages can be win-win situations. The customer leaves less likely to write harsh Yelp reviews after observing how much effort goes into a dish, while the restaurant gets some free help and a brand ambassador who praises the place to relatives and friends. And for that person, every future meal at the restaurant comes with heightened appreciation.
“It’s like when you visit a champagne house and actually see the hand-rotating of the bottles and the picking of the grapes,” says O’Connell. “The next time you open a bottle, it just tastes better.”
Hayes is a Washington-based freelance writer and photographer.