Working for free

Joined May 29, 2018
Hello all, I'm currently 24 and have put off going to culinary school for various reasons mostly because of cost. Well, I'm at the point in my life now to where I want to do what I love and what I know I will be good at-cooking. I don't have any experience in a professional kitchen, but I've been applying everywhere for dishwasher/prep work, hopefully that pans out. I do however have a meeting set up with the owner of a local restaurant here whom I emailed with an impassioned plea. He expressed that he doesn't have any payed positions but since I mentioned that id be willing ti volunteer my services in exchange for the knowledge received, he says that he thinks this would be a good avenue for me.

Is his a good idea? I'm stoned at the possibility because I think it will help me gain employment in the future. Or is working for free dumb?
Joined Mar 1, 2017
Hi hopeyeu and welcome to CT! :)

To answer your question in a word, no. Period. Its never good to work for free, not to mention that in the US, the law tends to frown upon not paying people for their work.

When someone with little to no kitchen experience tries to "break in" to the industry, an owner or the hiring chef will ask them to come in for either a shift or a portion of a shift, usually before rush, to become acquainted with the kitchen, its set up and its personnel. The applicant will typically work part or all of the shift and the hiring chef or owner will get a sense of what that person can do how they fit in. The applicant should be paid for their time and that is made clear from the beginning. Whenever I evaluated someone new for a position, I paid them in cash at an hourly rate commensurate with the position applied for regardless of whether or not I hired them.

You are being asked to come in and work for free for an unspecified period of time. For how long? Depending on what you are doing, you could spend several months or even a year before you could learn anything that will be of any value to you. Are you not going to get paid that whole time? Setting aside the questionable legality, how long are you willing to "donate" your time? So, not only is this offer completely one sided with little to no benefit to you, its legality is also rather questionable.

So, here is some free advice. If you can do anything else, do anything else. Its a hard life filled with long hours, crappy pay and little to no benefits. A career in the food industry leaves little time for relationships, marriage and especially, children. Weekends and holidays are always your busiest times and you will be working. Your "weekend" might consist of one day a week. This profession has a high substance abuse rate and an even higher divorce rate. There is nothing glamorous about it.

So, if you really want to experience what its like to work in a commercial kitchen, at least get paid for it. After a year, if you still have the same enthusiasm for a career in the food industry, then, give culinary school some thought.

Good luck. :)
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Joined Feb 8, 2009
The only way I would do something like this would be working under a top notch chef. Free labor for them while I get some experience in a high quality restaurant working all the stations and learning in a matter of weeks. If you walking in at an entry level position this guy is just looking for free labor. In your cases just hang in there and keep putting in applications. When you do get a job work hard and move up fast.......Good luck........ChefBillyB
Joined Oct 1, 2006
Hi hopeyeu,

Bottom line- It is still YOUR decision based on YOUR goals for YOUR life!

My parents would totally disagree with it being a dumb idea to work for free. They thought it was the best job I never had!

I was a culinary student. My parents didn't charge me rent only because I was a full time student paying 100% of school costs by working a full time job at a bakery.
The construction of the meat cutting lab, at school, was not going to be completed prior to graduation.
I explained the situation to a local butcher that replied "My sons and I do all the cutting, my wife and daughter run the front. We don't need any help."
I said "I'll work for free just to learn", every Saturday.
He said "OK"
At the end of the first day and actually every day I worked he sent me home with 6-8# of beef tenderloin trimmings. Dad really liked that...

I just wanted knowledge and experience. I ended up with a very nice recommendation letter, knowledge, and a bunch of meat. I learned how to dismantle a side of beef and a whole lot more about running a butcher operation. I know that it was time well spent for me.

*Note- I said "It was time well spent for me" It fit very well with MY goals and MY desires at that time.

Others have made really great points about the downside of this profession and this course of action. Here are a few potential positives:
  • After seeing what life is like working in a restaurant, you may just want to become a "foodie" and continue to enjoy cooking at home for friends and family! At least you would get an idea of how far you want to take your commitment.
  • You may actually have some talent and you might get offered a paid position!
By the end of the third day, you should be at the decision point as to the worth of working for free. In any event, how much have you really lost by working part of three or four days of your life.

I'd be interested to hear what you decide.
Joined Jan 19, 2011

Twenty-some years ago I got into a French 2 Michelin starred restaurant and offered to work for free for one month, I got the position for a month, almost 4 weeks later a cook left and I took his position and this time paid in full.
I spent one year working in that place and when I left, everything became easier for me BC seeing the name of that restaurant in my CV really took it to a different level and potential employers saw me under a very different light.
From my POV, if you choose wisely where to work for free, it may be a good move in your career, I was looking for that kind of experience and it paid well at the end of the day.
Many years later I did the same thing with a top notch baker, I had a very good job and I took a second shift (for free) just for the sake of learning how to make good bread and practicing hard every day, I couldn't get that kind of education, experience and knowledge in any culinary school. But again, the baker was a true master of his trade and I had very basic knowledge on bakery, I gave one shift, one month of my life for free and I think that it worths big time. But that's just me.
I have a ton of respect for every answer in this post, choose wisely and keep on with the good cooking.

Joined May 30, 2015
I think it depends on if you are actually being taught or just working an entry-level shift. If you approach it as a short-term unpaid internship where you receive hands-on training in a number of areas of the kitchen, I see no problem with it or why it would be illegal (providing they abide by internship regulations). That being said, I would have the expectation of working one-on-one with the manager/chefs and actually being shown techniques and recipes. If you do it more than a month or two or if your education consists of peeling potatoes and washing dishes, tell the owner that you were expecting to learn a more broad variety of skills and politely tell him you don't think it's going to work out. You should be able to tell which route the owner is going within a day or two.

I'd also put an hours cap around 20 hours a week, which is normal for most unpaid internships in my experience.

If it does pan out that you are actually being taught and learning useful skills, approach the owner after a month or two and tell him you would like to apply for a paid position with his company. If he doesn't have an opening, turn in your two week notice, thank him for the training and list it on your CV as a kitchen internship.

The key is that even if it doesn't turn into a job at that particular restaurant, you don't want to burn bridges or get blackballed before you have a stand-alone reputation in the industry.
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