When Anna Ugarte-Carral joined Noma’s first intake of successful applicants in its new three-month internship in 2018, she was one of about 60 chefs in the kitchen — half of whom were unpaid.
At the best restaurant in the world, chefs huddle in groups around beautiful timber benches, on polished terrazzo floors, each labouring over one element – of one dish – in the 20-course set menu.
For their first two weeks, Ugarte-Carral and the other interns picked herbs from 7am until 9 or 10pm when they clocked off hours earlier than the paid staff. The following fortnight, Ugarte-Carral prepped cod heads for a barbequed main course; the next, she cleaned sea snails.
While brutally long hours and wage theft are rife in hospitality worldwide, unpaid internships and traineeships, or stages as they’re called in kitchens, have been baked into the fine-dining sliver of the industry for generations.
Without free labour, would any of these restaurants even exist?
Ugarte-Carral met Noma’s chef-owner, René Redzepi, after she won a competition to dine at its Australian pop-up in 2016 while she was studying cooking at TAFE in Sydney.
Redzepi had just closed the original iteration of the Copenhagen restaurant to take the brand on tour. Since opening in 2003, Noma had redefined fine dining, swivelled the gastronomic lens away from France and Italy, forever changed perceptions of “local food”, introduced a generation of middle-class white people to foraging, and sparked a new era of chefs as mainstream rockstars. Along the way, it picked up three Michelin stars and won World's Best Restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014.
But Redzepi was afraid success would lead to routine, which could trap him in a creative cul-de-sac. So for two years, he cooked in Sydney, Mexico, Japan and the US before returning home.
When Noma was reborn in Denmark, in 2018, Ugarte-Carral was there, ready to learn and work for free.
“You know what you’re getting into, it’s a three-month internship, it’s obviously unpaid [but] I treated it like school,” she told VICE. Ugarte-Carral borrowed money from her parents to be there.
At the end of her three months, Ugarte-Carral was offered a job which she turned down because she’d realised it wasn’t her speed.
“It’s very intense. For me it wasn’t like cooking, it’s assembling. You’re part of a huge brigade on this huge assembly line,” she said.
Many interns had that realisation sooner.
“Probably 75 per cent of the interns who started with me didn’t finish the internship, they left early. I think it’s because their expectations for it weren’t met.
“Some people just didn’t gel with… the attitude in the kitchen that’s like push, push, push. It’s hectic, everyone’s running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
Ugarte-Carral said her expectations of the program were met because she wasn’t looking to learn new skills — she didn’t, really — but she enjoyed working with new ingredients, observing how the restaurant was run, learning the brigade system and taking in the attention to detail.
She also said, coming from Australia, she felt lucky to have the opportunity to be inspired.
“TAFE can be quite out of touch with the modern dining scene.”
Doing a stage – pronounced starj from the French word for trainee, stagiaire – in another chef’s kitchen is a common practice that predates fine dining in most parts of the world.
It’s long been a way for young chefs to volunteer their time in exchange for exposure to new techniques, ingredients and methods of operating.
If you train at Le Cordon Bleu, the largest culinary school institution in the world, staging is built into your course — the way placements may be part of a uni degree.
But staging is typically reserved for haute cuisine and, as the restaurant industry has exploded in the last 20 years, has evolved today from a form of education to a necessary part of most businesses.
René Redzepi had copped mounting criticism for Noma’s unpaid internship program for years, until late 2022 when he finally caved and began paying his interns.
The shift reportedly added at least $70,000 AUD to Noma’s monthly output.
Three months later, he announced he could no longer afford his staff and that Noma would shut down regular service at the end of 2024.
But despite the 3,500 Danish Krone ($740 AUD) price-tag on the meal alone — wine pairing is an extra 1,800 DKK ($380 AUD) or a juice pairing is 1,300 DKK ($275 AUD) — Noma will reinvent itself again into a "full-time food laboratory".
The price has risen a few hundred krone every year since it opened, and the sitting time has slimmed from over six hours, to three, to two.
"Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn't work," Redzepi said.
"This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way."
Even the world’s greatest restaurant doesn’t want to pay all of its staff.
It’s no surprise in an industry nourished by capitalism. Instead of having to be sustainable, valuable or even logical, restaurants like Noma trade on their name.
One chef VICE spoke to referred to Noma as “the Google of cooking”. Another said a stint there on your CV was like having a blue tick on Instagram.
“At a lot of those world-renowned restaurants, chefs line up to stage there, so it’s not like they’re begging people to work there. Some are begging to work there for free,” Melbourne chef Tom Sarafian told VICE.
In the last decade, the elitism of food media and the international awards system has made it almost essential for chefs to either do stages or work at high levels.
“[We’re told] if you want to be good or the best, or if you want to ‘make it’, you should be doing that kind of stuff, so younger chefs may feel influenced to work for free sometimes,” Sarafian said.
Sarafian has staged at fine-dining restaurants in Europe and Australia and, while he had great experiences personally and gained valuable insight and inspiration, he said restaurants benefitted from the stage system too.
“I think stages can be really beneficial — especially for young chefs who want to further their knowledge it’s a great way to get into different kitchens and see how people do things.
“But for restaurants, after a year of having five people always working for free, some might look back and take advantage of that.”
But Melbourne chef based in London Pablo Britton, who’s staged many times at top restaurants in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, said it’s a great way to try before you buy into a new job. But for those wanting to learn from someone as lauded as Redzepi, he said stagiaires at high-end restaurants rarely catch a glimpse of the famed chefs behind them.
At one venue, chefs came from all over to stage under a celebrity “phantom figurehead” whom he said had very little to do with the running of the kitchen.
“The team was international, very competitive, ambitious, almost all male and quite toxic. People were paid a poor salary and worked long hours.”
Rather than the creative genius diners expected to be cooking their food, Britton said the kitchen was made up of “workhorses rather than show-ponies”.
“This dynamic is common in the world of fine dining [and] it is distinctly at odds with a common selling point of a lot of restaurants: that the food you’re eating is being prepared by a chef-savant — part of why you’re paying all that money.”
He also said the coolroom smelt like piss.
FINE DINING DOESN’T MAKE SENSE
Since the World’s 50 Best became mainstream, since Chef’s Table on Netflix, since MasterChef Australia, since Broadsheet, since Instagram — diners have come to expect beautiful, perfect food. But they are increasingly less inclined to pay for it – and neither are restaurateurs.
Hugh Piper runs the kitchen at a wine bar in regional NSW but cut his teeth staging at Astrid y Gastón in Peru — named the best restaurant in Latin America in 2013 and as high as 14th in the world on the World’s 50 Best List.
He said about three-quarters of the staff were unpaid stagiaires like him.
On one section rotation, he was tasked with dicing apples for a scallop dish on the lunch menu.
The apples had to be peeled, sliced paper-thin on a meat slicer, and then cut into matchsticks, which Piper had to measure with a ruler, before being diced into mathematically precise cubes, then compressed in a vacuum-sealed bag with basil sugar syrup, and finally mixed with equal cubes of onion in a vanilla mayonnaise to top the seared scallop.
“I had to do 10 litres worth of this diced apple and it took me literally half a day because of how tiny this stuff was,” he told VICE.
“It came to the actual dish and I remember trying and I was like, ‘bloody hell once we've added all this stuff I can barely even taste this frickin’ apple’.
“Was that really that much more delicious than if we'd maybe eliminated two of those steps or were we just flexing?”
New Zealand chef based in Melbourne, Charley Snadden-Wilson, recently opened his own wine bar after a long cooking career and said fine-dining food was often simply not practical.
“It's not sustainable to spend six minutes plating one canapé, it's not,” he told VICE.
“The volume of food that we have to turn out versus what they have to do, of course they need all these chefs. I [only] need to do it with five chefs paid level wages.
“You do the food within those constraints, as opposed to the other way around.”
Exploitation, overworking and military-like pressure have long been the rule in hospitality, not the exception. Anthony Mulivai, who works front-of-house at restaurants in Melbourne, said it was part of the fabric of fine dining.
“There is absolutely a culture of not paying staff correctly at the upper level of dining both in the kitchen and on the floor,” he told VICE.
“These places rely on the passion and ambition of individuals to fuel their ventures.”
Sydney chef Neville Dsouza, who runs his own pop-up in Enmore, said a chef earning $47,000 a year and working 70-hour weeks likely thinks that’s normal.
“And society and the industry think that you're meant to do it because that's the way it's always been. But you can't make someone work 17 to 18 hours a day. That's just plain stupid,” he told VICE.
Now, he said, wage theft scandals in the media, changing legislation and the pandemic have shaken up old attitudes.
“All the old-school chefs would do that many hours because we all thought that was the norm, and if you do anything less, you're weak. It’s that toxic, like, ‘oh I do 95 hours, I'm sweet, my knives are sharp.’ Yeah but what about your life?”
“I think all work should be paid for in some way or the other. If you can't pay people, just don't open a business.”
THE FUTURE OF FINE DINING
Running any restaurant is expensive. The up-front costs are enormous, you may have to tread water for years before turning your first profit, and when you do, you’re looking at a 10 per cent margin at most.
But in this flooded free market, consumers are hungry for the best experience at the best price. And as the cost of living skyrockets and restaurants struggle to make ends meet, more and more wallets are fastened shut.
“The cost of raw ingredients like cabbages, whatever, has gotten so much higher in the last three, four years,” Dsouza said.
“When I do my costings, the price of meat, fish — steaks is probably like the most expensive thing to get right now. It's stupid expensive. But there's only so much you can charge the customer.”
Dsouza predicted the only way fine dining in Australia would stay alive was if prices jump dramatically.
But people still have to be happy to fork out.
“Making people understand the value of food and the value of people’s time is the bigger [issue],” Ugarte-Carral said.
“Money is the barrier to so many things in life and to break that down, you need to go all the way back to the start.”
In the meantime, people around the world will continue to work for free, work overtime and try anything to feel inspired. And employers will continue to cash in.
Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Senior Reporter for VICE Australia. You can follow her on Instagram here, or on Twitter here.