A Tale of 3 Trails: How to Choose Your Externship
ICE alum Pamela Vachon (Culinary, ‘11) talks through her experience trailing at three different restaurants in search of the right externship for her.
A critical piece of the culinary education experience at ICE is the externship, where students gain hands-on experience working in a restaurant environment for at least a month. A trail (or stage) — a prospective employee’s interview — is essential to find the right externship fit.
Like any good interview, it can go two ways: The restaurant is looking to evaluate whether you’d be a good match for their kitchen, and likewise it’s an opportunity for you to make the same determination. Many, though not all, externships are unpaid, so it’s important to consider whether time spent in a particular restaurant will help you achieve your goals or if you can see yourself wanting to work there when the externship is finished.
During my time at ICE New York, I didn’t have a clear picture of what my post-culinary school goals were. (Spoiler alert! I ended up going into fine dining front-of-house and food writing.) I had a sense that I wanted to work somewhere well-regarded, though, and I knew I had to get a move on it when one of my classmates completed a trail at three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York and was offered an externship quite early in our program. If spots in the city’s best restaurants were being snapped up more than two months in advance, I certainly didn’t want to be left behind.
I ended up trailing at three different restaurants and had three vastly different experiences. The Director of Student Affairs at the time advised us to be professional and do everything asked of us during a trail, and as you’ll see by my experiences, this could lead to a wide range of possibilities.
Here’s what happened:
Trail 1: Eleven Madison Park
Following my classmate’s trail at EMP, she spoke in breathless tones about the experience: the reverent and nearly silent atmosphere; how everything was plated using tweezers; the gorgeous dishware and the spotlessness of the kitchen. Determined to have my own shot at what was then considered the best restaurant in New York — and shortly to be named the best restaurant in the world — I had my own trail scheduled at EMP within the week.
Another piece of advice we had been given was to show up in attire that’s appropriate for the dining room in case you’re asked to wait in a guest-facing area. I heeded these instructions, arriving in a smart dress and heels, regardless of the fact that I had been given very explicit directions on how to wind around the bowels of the MetLife Building to the kitchen entrance. Given the look of surprise on the faces of the cooks completing their lunch service, I think it was assumed I was trailing for front-of-house, and was deposited in a locker room with no further instructions.
That was the only snafu, however, and I managed to find a chef’s coat and paper toque — which all the cooks wore at the time — and made my way back down to the kitchen.
And thus began the process of doing whatever I was told. The trail at EMP proceeded how I expected many culinary trails to go. I was rotated around the kitchen to watch the chefs at each of the various stations in progress, all while trying to stay out of the way. (Everything was, in fact, plated with tweezers.) Occasionally I was given a task, such as fetching a bunch of “medium” asparagus from the walk-in — where piles of asparagus had been arranged and sorted into roughly 12 different sizes — cleaning a hotel pan of razor clams or picking individual thyme leaves off of their tiny stems. A few times I was given an opportunity to taste a dish — a flight of canapés and a salad that had been plated incorrectly — and it was clear that I was expected to give thoughtful evaluation on what I had tasted. To this day I still remember a sublime goat cheese lollipop covered with a dehydrated beet powder.
The real work began for me after about 10 hours of observation, when it was clear that this was the opportunity to prove just how badly I wanted the externship. While I was mostly a spectator for the cooking process that night, I was definitely a participant in the cleaning process following service. I mopped each of the walk-in refrigerators, ferried several cambros of ice up a flight of stairs and scrubbed the copper pipes underneath each workstation with a toothbrush and polish.
Once completed, I had a conversation with one of the sous chefs about how the night went for both of us. He gave me an indication I would likely be offered a spot, with an email to follow up in a matter of days.
Trail 2: Applewood
My interest in Brooklyn’s Applewood restaurant was three-fold. First, it was the subject of a culinary memoir I really liked, Melanie Rehak’s “Eating for Beginners.” Second, it was just down the street from my apartment, and I’d had several memorable meals there.
Third, and most importantly, I wanted to see what the experience would be in a well-regarded, but small, neighborhood farm-to-table restaurant, where the chance to do some actual cooking during my externship was much higher than in other establishments.
Applewood didn’t disappoint. While trailing at EMP, I mostly tried to stay out of the way of the 25 or so cooks working that night, but at Applewood I was 25% of the workforce. I helped extensively with prepping the mise en place for the evening’s service; aside from the cut vegetables nestled in quart containers and the protein portions resting in the lowboy, salt, oils, saucing and tasting spoons all needed to take their place on the line to be ready for service. I watched three other cooks handwrite the menu about five minutes before opening, and I was basically put immediately on garde manger when service started.
For the first hour I plated and garnished three dishes: a butter lettuce salad, a chilled cucumber soup and a cheese and charcuterie plate. While not exactly cooking, it was still good engagement with the process of working in a restaurant kitchen, and a welcome change from simply standing and observing.
Once the first wave of diners moved from appetizers to entrées, I was given a few proteins to cook on the grill. There’s a weird moment of intimidation when you realize that someone has paid money to eat the food you’re cooking for the first time. Despite how much cooking was happening daily in my kitchen classroom, I still recall the moment that first piece of squid sizzled on the grill at Applewood. After a few hours of alternating between plating cold dishes and the occasional grilling task, I was told that the rush was pretty much over, and I could go. (I had mentally prepared myself for the clean-up, so this was a welcome surprise.)
One of the fascinating things I learned about Applewood that night was that everyone rotated stations every few weeks, including the pastry station, and everyone was responsible for devising their own dishes for whatever station they were on.
This was the trade-off between the opportunity at EMP and the opportunity at Applewood: Put an important restaurant on my resumé and be a part of a large operation, or be a part of a very small team and get more hands-on right away. Again, it came down to my culinary goals. Was I trying to be a sous chef in a famous restaurant in short order, or did I want to have input on menu items?
(Note: Applewood, unfortunately, closed in 2016.)
Trail 3: Gramercy Tavern
Though I had a lot to think about between EMP and Applewood, I added one more restaurant to my list. A former roommate was a pastry cook at Gramercy Tavern, and it represented a good midpoint between my two previous experiences — a beloved neighborhood restaurant that had some fine-dining bravado, and one that was going to allow me to spend time in both the culinary and pastry kitchens.
My trail at Gramercy was entirely unlike my two previous experiences. Because of its size and scope I was expecting it to be much more in the style of EMP, but after suiting up in my chef’s coat and commis cap, I wasn’t invited to cook. Instead, I took a place beside the expediting sous chef for the night. While he called out orders as they came in, fired each dish at the appropriate moment and handed off completed dishes to food runners to bring into the dining room, we talked about the restaurant’s menu and plating philosophy, and he asked me about my background.
Then, in a complete turn of events, he had the cooks bring me plating portions of each of the dishes on the menu, one at a time — to eat.
Between the fact that I’d had one of the best meals of my life during a culinary trail,* and the fact that Gramercy Tavern offered a paid internship, my paperwork was signed, sealed and delivered that night.
(*Results not guaranteed, as this was 2011.)