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Why Award-Winning Chefs Are Still Looking for Unpaid Internships

Revered chefs around the country are bartending for free and taking classes to learn how to farm, can produce, and even write—all in the name of seeing food from a different angle.
Photo courtesy of WWOOF

The Left Field Lounge is a quintessential Kentucky dive, with its black pleather bar stools, crimson dart board, and bottles of cheap bourbon glistening under criss-crossed strings of Christmas lights. The bartender, Griffin Paulin, is new—you can tell by his uneven pours.

"I can measure out five ounces of salmon by eyeballing it. Can I pour two ounces of bourbon the same way? Not right now, but one day," he said.


This isn't Paulin's only job—he just finished his first shift and came over, but here's the deal: he isn't getting paid for his time behind the bar. During the day, Paulin is one of the chefs behind Ten Tables, an exclusive rotating gourmet dinner club in Louisville, and will be the executive chef at the soon-to-open restaurant Over the 9. He has worked at some of the city's most popular eateries, and now he is working as an unpaid intern of sorts at a hole-in-the-wall sports bar.

Why? Simple—he wants to open a bar himself one day. In his dreams, Paulin envisions it as a dive bar with simple food, a great (but concise and relatively cheap) cocktail list, a jukebox, some tables. "No fluff. Nothing extravagant," he said. "You'd walk in, hear The Roots over the speakers, see a group of mostly-broken industry folk coming back to life with shots of tequila or Fernet."

While Paulin obviously has the food part of his business plan down, he jokes that can barely make a vodka soda right now—something he is working hard to change.

"I think I'd be a total hypocrite, not to mention foolish, to open a place that wasn't indicative of my skillset. Also, how can you manage a place, manage personalities, if you don't understand the product, the job, the work?" Paulin said.


Griffin Paulin.

With that in mind, he approached the management at Left Field Lounge, one of his personal haunts, to see about learning the basics of bartending as a start. "As far as interning, I'm lucky to be in a good place financially. I can go work for free with people I like and respect, not worry about screwing the business up, not worry about getting fired," Paulin said. "I will surely be hiring people when I do open a bar … but nobody respects a boss that doesn't understand the job."


Interning for free—or staging (coming from the French word stagiaire, meaning trainee or apprentice)in another chef's restaurant as a way to learn new techniques or be exposed to new cuisines is a longstanding and common practice in the restaurant industry. However, like Paulin, more and more chefs are taking on unconventional internships or classes that teach skills falling outside their typical job description or the traditional culinary school curriculum as a means to keep up with the ever-changing world of food.

Just a few blocks over from the Lounge, Chef Anthony Lamas gets ready for dinner service at Seviche, his award-winning modern Latin restaurant. It's summer, so Lamas—a James Beard award finalist (who also "Beat Bobby Flay" with his signature shrimp and grits)—has boxes of farm-fresh produce set on the counters. Some will be used in that night's specials, while others will be canned and preserved for months down the road—a skill that Lamas learned while working with food scientist Isolde Aubuchon to become the only chef who is also a certified canner in the state of Kentucky.

"Working with a scientist taught me so much about how the way food is handled and preserved; it is really important to preserving the harvest and not wasting food," Lamas said.

Raised in California, Lamas found himself and his interest in cooking while he was a youth involved in the Future Farmers of America. During that time, he registered the importance of getting to know one's food and where it comes from.


"I think it's easy to go to the grocery store and just grab food and not realize all the work that goes into it. Someone grew it, someone raised it, someone picked it, and someone packed it for shipping," Lamas said. "It also taught me that there are good ways of doing things and bad ways of doing things. I currently take great pride in sourcing only the best and most sustainable food for my restaurant."

He continued: "I have Brooke Eckman from Ambrosia Farm that grows things just for me, and so depending on the rain and sunshine, I can end up with hundreds of pounds of a certain product. Preserving and processing is an important way of using something currently in-season that's later out-of-season. Controlling PH levels allows us to do this."

Becoming certified was a two-year process for Lamas. He took classes at the University of Kentucky to obtain a processing certificate while working with Aubuchon to learn the science behind the canning process. "I learned that food handling is so much more than washing and inspecting it," Lamas said.

Then there are chefs who, in addition to learning how to preserve fresh produce, are interested in being the ones who plant and harvest what they serve in their restaurants. Aprile Ferrer-Taylor participated in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF—also sometimes referred to as Willing Workers on Organic Farms) internship program. The WWOOF is a loose network that helps place volunteers on organic farms across over 90 nations.


Aprile Ferrer-Taylor.

Ferrer-Taylor is a 2011 graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City who has worked at several big-name restaurants like NOLA and Gautreau's in New Orleans and Park Avenue Autumn/Winter/Spring/Summer. She is currently working at PRINT, a seasonal farm-to-table restaurant in Hell's Kitchen, with plans to open her own restaurant later this year in New Jersey.

After she graduated from culinary school, a friend told her of his experience volunteering on a farm in France. Ferrer-Taylor researched a variety of programs, but the best testimonies kept surfacing about the WWOOF. She signed up.

"I first went to a permaculture farm in Evreux, France, out in the Normandy region. Even though we did a lot of hard work for basically an educational opportunity and free room and board, it still felt like I was privileged to be there," Ferrer Taylor said. "The camaraderie was fantastic. My host was great and I still keep in contact with him. If my schedule allows it, I'd love to head back over there for harvest season so I can see the finished product of those long hours."

Ferrer-Taylor also went to a biodynamic farm in the Catskills region of New York, where she learned a lot about the farm-to-table structure. "I learned a great deal about the word 'seasonal' and how one goes about creating a truly cost-effective menu," she continued. "It was important for me to start learning the work, the lingo, and everything else for our restaurant. It was the first step in creating that bond with the farmers that soon will be a big part of my professional life."


Future WWOOF volunteer Chef Dominic Angelosante—who works at the farm-to-table events space owned by Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan—was attracted to the program because of his love of fresh produce and ingredients. Angelosante will begin his WWOOF volunteering at Sacred Acres Farm in Marquette, Mich. From there he will head north to Bayfield, Wis., to work on the Sixth Day Farm, followed by some time in Santa Cruz, Calif., to work on Blossom's Biodynamic Farm.

"I have had the opportunity to learn from the best and cook with the best ingredients, learning to feature the vegetable and glorify its purity in my dishes," Angelosante said. "Having first-hand gardening skills will help any chef or baker to utilize farms, and potentially have their own, because once you've tasted the difference of knowing who grows your food, you won't go back to the supermarket."

Other chefs look to expand their professional skills in a more literary way—and that's where Molly O'Neill can help. O'Neil was the food columnist for The New York Times Magazine for over a decade, the host of the PBS series Great Food, and the author of the bestselling The New York Cookbook.

She has leveraged her food writing success into several programs that appeal to "chefs, bakers, food justice advocates, farm market organizers, farmers, specialty food packagers and academics with an interest in food studies, as well as established cookbook authors, radio broadcasters, food photographers and television people."

Advertisement is an online resource of food writing courses founded by O'Neill. "Chefs frequently enroll in these classes with a book, a blog or even merely menu- and press-release- writing in mind," she said. According to her, a few remain after the introductory classes in order to hone their skills and move toward a book proposal. "In the final stages of their proposals it is not unusual for chefs to sign up for a few private mentoring sessions in order to finish the proposal, get an agent, sell the book, and, at the same time, be establishing or expanding their social media platforms."

In the summers, O'Neill offers a two-week residential immersion course in Rensselaerville, New York. In this two week course, the scholars are basically thrown into a fast-paced editorial office. They write every day. They get instruction in recipe writing, food blogging, memoir, creative non-fiction, food news reporting—with additional emphasis placed in photography, videography, oral history and reporting skills.


Molly's residency program.

"Chefs in particular respond to our mentor-style teaching model, our hands-on approach and the reality-based 'action plans' that we insist upon," O'Neill said. "Last year we had one chef who is now in midst of her first cookbook, another who conceived and is now writing her first memoir. This year, we have a chef who sees that he can not continue working physically for many more years and is eager to figure out another media to share his culinary knowledge. This is not unusual. After 10 years in a professional kitchen, the wear and tear physically is tremendous, and chefs—who have accumulated remarkable life experience and expertise—are doers by nature."

Back in Louisville, Paulin is doing just that. He spoke about his goals after finishing his shifts at Left Field Lounge: "I'd like to learn some of the science behind [mixing drinks] as well. I'm not looking to be a level-two sommelier or anything—just to have a decent, working knowledge of being 'behind the stick'—be able to pour a cocktail," he said.

"I'd really like my place to be a 'chef-driven' bar, which sounds stupid, I'm aware," Paulin said. "But if I can whip up a house made rhubarb and blood orange bitters, and use it in a cocktail … I want one just thinking about it. I have a good knowledge of ingredients. I think I could do something unique to this city and have a cheap place to drink!"