Working with Interns; An interview with chef Luke Headon of Restaurant Story

Restaurant Story, a Michelin-starred tasting menu restaurant in London, is known for a high level of execution and it requires a lot of hands on deck to achieve it. “We work really hard to give our diners the best experience possible and provide the best food,” says head chef Luke Headon. Chef Headon and chef Tom Sellers are in charge of the menu and back of the house staff including interns who want to learn new skills while volunteering their time in the Restaurant Story kitchen.

Kitchen interns, also known as stagiaires or apprentices, have been a part of the fine dining world since the days of chefs like Escoffier and Bocuse and are an important part of the kitchen system. The idea is that inexperienced cooks can learn valuable skills by volunteering their time to a restaurant. “We usually have around 2 or 3 interns max because of space,” Headon explains. Many chefs put interns in charge of menial tasks like peeling potatoes or carrots but it’s a disservice to your kitchen and the intern to do so, says Headon. Below, he goes over ways chefs can incorporate interns into their restaurant and provide them with guidance and mentorship over the course of their time there.

Before agreeing to take on interns, have a conversation about what they’re hoping to learn from the experience.

“I have email conversations with any intern who comes here,” Headon says. “I want to learn about what they’re interested in so I can think about where to put them.” Learning about what interns are interested in allows chef Headon to create a plan of action for them and their time in his kitchen. “If I know that an intern is interested in learning about chocolate or pastry, I’m not going to have them work sauté,” he says. Since time and space are a premium in most kitchens, he recommends that chefs think about the best areas for interns tor work in that would benefit them both.

Have a plan and make sure you’re organized before they start.

You know when you have an appointment with someone and you show up and it’s clear that they didn’t prepare? That’s how an intern feels when they show up and are told to just follow someone or peel potatoes for hours. Before an intern starts, Headon goes over a few things with them so everyone is on the same page. “Take the time to make sure that they know what to expect and what to bring and I give them a schedule with a plan on it,” he says. Even something as small as knowing what days and hours they’re going to be working let’s them know that they’re not an afterthought and they’re actually part of the team. “It makes them feel more relaxed and they’ll be way more productive.”

Headon also says that he makes an effort to make sure that the tasks that interns have are varied from shift to shift or week to week so they’re learning as much as possible. “They’re volunteering their time so you don’t want to take advantage of that,” he says. “If you just have them peel potatoes they’ll shut down, so show them that you’ve planned something.”

Keep an eye on interns and make sure your team does too.

Incorporating an intern into your kitchen means your line cooks, porters, prep cooks and other members of staff need to be ready to work with them as well. For Headon, he knows firsthand what it’s like to work as an intern in a kitchen that’s not friendly “I’ve been in kitchens where no one speaks to you or helps you out when you’re looking for something and it’s not great,” he says. “I speak to my guys about the fact that the interns are here to learn and they’re not just here to be extra hands.” Setting that expectation makes the line cooks more aware of how they’re interacting with the interns at Restaurant Story and makes them accountable for their success during their time there.

Remember that you’re an example.

Headon says more than anything, he tries to think about the non-verbal lessons that are being passed onto interns in his working environment. “For me, the ultimate thing is passing on a sense hard work and the fact that we have high standards,” he says. “It’s not just about the food but how we work and present ourselves as chefs as a whole.”

Photos courtesy of Restaurant Story

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