Jitti Chaithiraphant makes an art of out of staging. Relying on couch-surfing and staying in hostels, he's worked his way across the country. Over the past couple of years, he's staged (completed an unpaid internship in the kitchen) at over 50 restaurants. Currently, he's set his sights on a new project, making craft vinegars.
Have you always been into cooking?
I started cooking with my mom when I was young, in Thailand. Other kids would be playing, but I wanted to go grocery shopping with my mom. I always thought it was fun. Chopping garlic was always my favorite thing to do. I'd get to use to cleaver, and it was just so much fun. My mom taught me so much without even knowing it. I learned how to find the best produce. It wasn't until my second year in college when I apprenticed at Ma Maison, which was the best French restaurant in Bangkok at the time.
How did you get into staging?
I came back to cooking, and I didn't know anybody; I had no friends in the restaurant industry. I had just worked in a hotel for five years. I didn't go to cooking school, and there wasn't a book that I could find that was more about how to work in a restaurant. It was the 90s, and there wasn't much out there, so I started writing to chefs. The only ones that responded were Michael Leviton and Gordon Hamersley. I had written Michael at three in the morning, and by around 9 a.m., he called. I went [to Lumiere] to work a few months. If he had had a full-time position available, I would have stayed. I didn't want to leave. I thought his kitchen was perfect, and I felt so inspired.
I learned to cook by watching and by being at a particular station. Before I worked at Sel de la Terre, I didn't even know how to cook meat. I was working at Sel de la Terre and doing stages at Radius in my spare time. I just had questions about food all the time, and I wanted to work for people who would let me ask lots of questions.
"I would just write to chefs that I admire, asking them if I could come in and learn. Sometimes I never heard back, but that just fueled me to write more."
How do you choose where you want to stage?
I like to cook what I like to eat. I grew up being obsessed with steak au poivre and French onion soup. Whenever my dad would take me to dinner, we'd go to French restaurants in Thailand. I would always look for these two things — and also creme brûlée. When I ate locally at Aquitaine, I thought that they had really great bistro food. When I left Lumiere, [Leviton] asked me where I wanted to go. I wanted to work at Union, so he placed a call. I interviewed and got the job.
I also studied the career paths of people that I really admire, people like Jamie Bissonnette and Jason Bond. I would just write to chefs that I admire, asking them if I could come in and learn. Sometimes I never heard back, but that just fueled me to write more. I had heard about Hugo in Portland, ME, so I wrote to Rob Evans, the owner at the time. Rob's wife wrote me, and they were so welcoming. I staged there and a couple of other places in Portland. The generosity of such chefs really started to drive me to do more.
How many stages have you done?
I don't know exactly...fifty? Maybe sixty? I have a list of them all somewhere. I used to try and write about it on a blog, but then I stopped. Unfortunately I don't have time to write about all of them, but I try to stay in touch with people.
How do you approach the chefs?
I would just write letters. Maybe ten or so a week. I'd try not to cut and paste; I'd try to make them really personal. When I joined Twitter, I'd start tweeting at people and found that sometimes worked. It was funny; I didn't know what to name my Twitter handle. I wanted something about being on the beach, but then I heard the song "You're So Vain" and I thought, what about having it be "cooking in vain"? It's cheesy. I thought it was pretty funny so I went with it. So I've sort of become the "cooking in vain guy." I had put on the Twitter description that I was trying to do 52 stages in 52 weeks. I wasn't trying to be known for what I did. I just wanted people to see my tweets and allow me to stage.
I tried to meet people and talk to them. I actually met Eric Ripert in Boston. He had come to the city to talk. I had a letter for him, and I assumed many people would be like me and have a letter also, but I was the only one. I staged at Le Bernardin and at Gramercy Tavern. I had the opportunity to talk with David Chang when I was there too.
I also found that when I met one chef, it just led to meeting another. People in the South are just so much fun. Zero attitude.
It sounds like you heard your fair share of no. Did you ever get discouraged?
No, I didn't feel discouraged.
What are some of your favorite restaurants that you've staged at?
That's a tough one. But if I had to pick, it'd be John Shields. He was one of the hardest working people I had ever met, and he had humility too. He was the one that set me up to work at McCrady's in Charleston. When I was leaving my stage with John, he asked me where I wanted to go next. When I told him that McCrady's was on my list, he told me that he and Sean Brock were best friends. In fact, Sean was his best man at his wedding. So I started staging at McCrady's. They have such a great kitchen there.
The best stage in terms of how much I learned was Citronelle. I went to DC after I turned down a job at Le Bernadin. This was when the sous vide was just starting to make its way into the US, and Michel Richard was one of the first using this technique. The stuff that he does is very meticulous. His plating was very graphic and truly unique. I still think that their team was one of the best, and they've all gone on to do really great things. One is at French Laundry, another worked for Jose Andres, and others went off to do their own thing. Everyone was just so passionate. I was able to do a lot there, and I saw all the stages. They made sure I did something different every day. I'd watch garde manger, and then I'd do it one day. I'd come in early in the morning and prep and work on some sous vide things that they were doing. One day I was asked to plate. I was so humbled.
When I was staging in DC, I was supposed to stay with a friend of mine, but that fell through so I started couch-surfing. Or I'd stay in hostels. When I left DC, I went to live on a farm.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to stage?
Don't write a long letter. Just say "Hey! I want to stage," and briefly talk about yourself.