Free Restaurant Labor Tastes Great

Last week I got a call from a former Le Cordon Bleu student. He excitedly told me he had landed his first chef job. I congratulated him and promised to come check out his new place. The conversation ended with him asking me to keep an eye out for some good cooks and possibly an intern or two.

Yes, many of your favorite restaurants use unpaid interns. Are you ok with a little local slave labor? 

Restaurants with the most accolades use unpaid interns most often. Less acclaimed establishments tend to pay for interns.

Should interns be paid competitive wages, low training wages, not paid at all, maybe out of pocket expenses as some of my friends suggested at dinner last night, or should they be compensated by something more elusive, like education?

Finer restaurants typically have multiple students “staging” (which is basically a working interview) just to get a much sought-after internship position. The competition for intern positions lessens the likelihood of monetary compensation. Conversely, less acclaimed restaurants entice fewer applicants and basically hire their interns, blurring the line between employment and internship.

Regardless of whether interns are paid or not, they receive college credit, and logically should be getting some form of education to justify the graduation requirements. Guidelines* and clear understanding benefits both parties as to reasonable expectations of the internship experience.

To those chefs and interns considering internships, paid or otherwise, consider the following:

1) Interns deserve education and training. Paid cooks move slowly through the line, from prep, dishes and pastry (everyone loves pastry jokes, don’t they!) to garde-manger, then broiler or grill, then sauté or main course, and eventually expo, tournant and sous-chef. Working through the line takes years. Interns (regardless of skill) should move briskly, learning each station within a couple weeks. 

2) Interns should be fed. Cooks usually eat a “family meal” (the free meal, made from what would otherwise be waste). Interns eat family meal also, but as part of their education they should experience the more exotic ingredients and dishes from the menu as well. 

3) Interns, while nice to have around, should be an extraneous and ultimately unnecessary staffing luxury item. If they become more than that, and replace work regularly done by employees, then pay them. Their time should not be abused. Some chefs erroneously consider their interns prime candidates for 12 weeks of scullery work, forgetting any obligations in a macho-type of fraternity abuse leading to future abuse.

I think interns should choose carefully. Their time is valuable. Education is a foundation and ultimately more valuable than any wages paid.

An intern, while not entitled to a job, should have a clear understanding of the nature of their position as a student in a work-place environment. Chefs who pay interns should honor the internship process, and not treat their interns like employees.

You might be wondering which restaurants pay and which don’t. It would be safe to assume that any restaurants with national awards are more sought after and therefore do not need to pay their interns. Consequently, we might also assume that customers enjoy some price benefit from the interns’ labor.

Patrons, does this surprise you? Restaurant personnel, feel free to share what you do and why. To me, the internship experience, not monetary payment, is the actual benefit.

*Actual guidelines as set forth by the Department of Labor are:

The Test For Unpaid Interns
There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation. The Supreme Court has held that the term “suffer or permit to work” cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction. This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria. The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.


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