What is Staging?
The term ‘to stage’ is derived from the French term ‘stagiaire’ which is an apprentice or cook who does an unpaid internship briefly for another cook or chef in order to learn new techniques and cooking styles. In plain English, you are a kitchen bitch. Whenever I ask chefs I interview about their advice on getting into the food business they categorically recommend the same thing – go stage for someone for a few weeks. Do the work for free. If you find you still want to do it at the end of your stage, then you might be onto something.
Why Am I Doing This and How Did I Get Here?
Earlier this year I was thinking of buying a local sausage company in Seattle – without ever having made a sausage in my life. I realized through this process that it would be silly to commit myself to a career in meat production of any kind without knowing what I was getting myself into. Sure, I’d worked my way through college in fish markets but that was different. And yeah – I like meat of almost any variety, cut and preparation. But while I loved to eat it I wasn’t sure I’d like to spend all my days making it for others. So, I embarked on a quest for knowledge.
Over the past 8 months, I’ve learned how to make sausage, coppa, bacon, lonza, culatello, fiocco, guanciale, pancetta and a few different kinds of salumi. All from scratch through reading and talking to more experienced professional and home cooks. I joined a terrific Facebook group called ‘Sausage Debauchery’ and continue to learn from people every day there. In June, one of the members of the group mentioned that he was headed to stage at The Fatted Calf in Napa, California and it piqued my interest. He was kind enough to share the contact details of the person he was working with and off I went. 3 months and a few emails later, I arrived at…
The Fatted Calf
If you know your charcuterie in the US of A you have probably heard of The Fatted Calf in Napa. It is was founded by Toponia Miller and Taylor Boetticher and is focused on charcuterie and salumi production using pastured meats. Both have written an excellent book titled ‘In the Charcuterie‘ which is a must for any hobbyist or professional. With storefronts in both Napa and San Francisco it serves the greater Bay Area and is one of the premier enterprises of its kind.
I first stepped into The Fatted Calf about seven years ago on a trip to see my folks who live nearby and I was immediately drawn to the quality and variety of meats on display. Since then, they have expanded in both scope and scale while keeping an emphasis on quality and small batch production. And it’s not just meat – they produce a variety of antipasti to accompany their charcuterie as well.
I was fortunate enough to have my dad precede me in staging at The Fatted Calf in early October. So, I knew a bit about what to expect. Hard work, non-stop pace, and a whole lot of meat. It was with this little bit of information that I enthusiastically arrived on Monday, November 3rd, 2014 to begin my stage.
My shift was 8a-4p and I arrived a bit early to get a jump. Greeted by the production manager Ren, I was given the grand tour in about 5 minutes and we hit the ground running. My first task – lay out about 15# of beef jerky for drying. It had been brined and smoked and now it needed to be dehydrated. A fine introduction to work.
Next up was picking five bunches of thyme for use in duck rillette. Which we then made. I picked clean 72 duck legs/thighs that had been poached in duck fat being careful to remove all skin, bones and cartilage. Then the meat was shredded, thyme chopped and added, quatre epices added, fat reintroduced and brandy added for a nice kick. This process continued for some time until the volume of the meat was effectively doubled by the reintroduction of the duck fat and brandy. We then filled about 100 jars, carefully removing all air bubbles by hand, to be sealed and sold individually. The balance of the rillette was reserved for future use.
After this, we moved on to tying brined picnic hams followed by larger hams. I learned how to tie a butcher’s knot properly and got a lot of practice. I also learned that brine starts to eat into your hands after a bit. A revelation!
And last but not least, came pork rillette. A steaming cauldron of pork that had been poached in lard appeared before me. Out came probably 30-40# of delicious, fat covered pork – fall apart tender to the touch. While it was much easier to separate the meat given it was boneless, it was also pretty damned hot for my delicate, non-professional kitchen honed hands. I double-gloved it and used a spider to break apart the big pieces until diving in with both hands to separate the meat and shred it. The process was very similar to duck rillette except for the fact we used no thyme. Pull pork, add liquefied pork fat, quatre epices and brandy. Season to taste, fill 100 jars, remove air bubbles, and reserve the balance for future use.
After one day, which was pretty non-stop, I have a new found respect for everyone I know who works in a professional kitchen. I dealt with standing, hunching over tables, sliding around the floor (without falling), not getting in anybody’s way, saying ‘behind’ and ‘sharp’ at the right times, and being generally helpful albeit slower than the pros. I’ll call day one a success and look forward to day two when I may actually be able to use my knives!
One of the best things about the kitchen – there’s no clock. I can’t imagine having a clock in the room while trying to get everything done. It’s like Vegas where there are no clocks in the casino. You don’t need to know what time it is – just that there’s more to do. Once I got back to my folks’ place I was ready for a big glass of red wine and a chair. Bring on Day 2!
For the balance of my two week stint at The Fatted Calf I’ll be posting about my experiences on a daily basis. Hopefully it will be informative for any reader who is interested in doing a stage or for those who want to live vicariously through me. Enjoy!