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'STAGE: The Culinary Internship' director Abby Ainsworth’s focus was how Gordon Ramsay-type chefs get started

"We didn't want to focus on say a Gordon Ramsay as a celebrity chef, but rather where he got his start and who his mentors were," director Abby Ainsworth told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW)
Abby Ainsworth (Butternut Productions)
Abby Ainsworth (Butternut Productions)

In the grueling world of professional chefs, an important rite of passage is the "Stage", an unpaid internship at a top tier restaurant. It is an experience that top chefs remember fondly as the time they 'earned' the right to be called chefs as the experience transforms newbie entrants into the professionals. Culinary interns, called "stagiaires", compete for a spot in Michelin star restaurants. World-famous restaurants like the two-star Mugaritz restaurant in Spain, for instance, receives hundreds of applications from around the world, of which they select only 30. The reasons are two-fold -- one, the prestigious restaurant name adds an unbeatable aura to their resumes and two, because it helps them train alongside the best in the industry. 

Documentary director of 'STAGE: The Culinary Internship', Abby Ainsworth, was always intrigued by how transformative the experience of working at a Michelin star restaurant seemed to be, she told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) in an exclusive interview. 

"I used to work in a restaurant front-of-house and I would see my friends who were line cooks save all their money to stage at Michelin restaurants around the world," she explained. "I always thought this was fascinating. Who goes on vacation to work on their feet for 15 hours a day?! When my friends came back from staging they'd act like completely different cooks, their confidence, and their knowledge were palpable."

Ainsworth took an 'anti-reality TV' approach to film her subjects. "Throughout the documentary, there is a common thread of competition [among the interns] but that is only a minor part of the story. What we tried to do is actually move away from the conventions of what the reality TV and celebrity chef culture presents," she said. According to her, while TV shows glamorize the industry, she wanted to show the hard work and dedication that young cooks put in. "We didn't want to focus on say a Gordon Ramsay as a celebrity chef, but rather where he got his start and who his mentors were," she added. Her film's perspective captures the "stagiaires point-of-view" rather than the diners who feast on their creations or how the front-of-house staff presents the dishes to them. "We wanted to create a claustrophobic bubble. They eat, sleep, and breathe Mugaritz for 9 months and we wanted audiences to feel that."

But filming was a challenge since her crew tried to be as unobtrusive as possible to minimize any disruptions to Mugaritz running its business, among other concerns. "Filming with one camera was also a challenge, especially in the kitchen. By the time the camera would land on a great action shot, it would be over," she rued. Since she was living in Toronto, Canada, she also was not in the same country as her subjects and a lot happened when she wasn't around between shooting stints. "The challenges were endless really. I [also] don’t speak Spanish, so overcoming that hurdle was very difficult from pre-production all the way until post-production. Lastly, this is my first feature documentary so the editing process was a huge learning curve for me," she added. 

Ainsworth also thought long and hard about which stagiaires to focus on. Her two main concerns were trying to decide which of them would give audiences a feel for the sort of people applying for the grueling internship and also who among them would stick out till the end of the 9-month long internship. "There were chefs from all over the world who all had amazing stories to tell. Initially, we had chosen ten stagiaires, knowing some would drop out along the way," she explained. When she and her crew returned for their second production trip, a couple of their selected subjects had already left, so they had no choice but to reduce the number of subjects. The final selection was "based on culinary backgrounds, ambitions, and of course personalities. In the end, it was just luck in how each character's time at Mugaritz was so different from one another."

The documentary lightly touches on the question about women chefs being in the minority in kitchens through the insecurities of one of the stagiaires, Sara, who is also one of the most successful interns in the batch. "At Mugaritz, we saw more females in leadership roles. [But] when Ines left, Sara did feel the male presence more and it was important to touch upon as she was our lead female character. Her worries and insecurities were diminished by the end with her huge triumph surpassing her male counterparts," said Ainsworth. Having seen first hand the rigors of a professional kitchen, Ainsworth is now working on a similar project that focuses on mental health in the culinary industry.

'STAGE: The Culinary Internship' released on May 29 in virtual cinemas across the nation. All tickets can be purchased here