Milwaukee Film Festival Review: “Stage: The Culinary Internship”

We sponsored “Stage: The Culinary Internship” at this year’s virtual Milwaukee Film Festival.

JOIN OUR WATCH PARTY FOR STAGE: THE CULINARY INTERNSHIP MONDAY AT 7 P.M.

Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking is a tome full of glossy photos some of the culinary creations made at the restaurant of the same name in Errenteria, Spain. Some look like dead tentacle creatures living under pancake batter. Others look like cannolis wrapped in broken rocks.

“The pictures are beautiful, but is it food?” says Kim, a 24-year-old Korean chef who first discovered Mugaritz through the pages of the book.

Now, years later, he has arrived at the restaurant, one of the top 10 dining establishments in the entire world, where diners cough up 300 euros for a meal. Kim is one of the 30 interns chosen as part of Stage, a 9-month unpaid program that attracts 1,500 applicants every year, each one hoping to master the delicate art of the highest of high-end dining.

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Stage: A Culinary Internship follows Kim along with three other such interns. Alex, Pawel, and Sara, who are each nervous and driven in their own way to learn from these masters.

You might be expecting something off of Food Network, with frantic interns dropping flaming pots and chefs screaming obscenities, but the reality is far quieter and more subtle, but equally intense.

“Kitchens can crush people,” says Mugaritz owner and executive chef Andoni Aduriz. “They can crush people’s spirit. The opposite has to happen here.”

The work of performing at the highest level on the planet pervades a light anxiety across the many kitchen scenes. Comments on an intern’s latest dish, such as, “It’s acceptable,” are crushing blows. The interns wince and sweat as they struggle to keep their work on par with the masters around them. Some are unable to take the pressure to deliver and don’t stay the full nine months.

Mugritz is a type of restaurant that’s hard to fathom for an outsider. It has a “head of research and development,” who isolates molecules from strange sources to apply to meals and spends untold hours crafting dishes that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet.

“We got here the first day and Andoni told us we want a dish that looks like a used condom,” says Caio, who works on the research and development team. “So we did it.”

Over the course of the film, you watch diners eat several inexplicable dishes, many of which come with a waiter’s instructions on how to go about eating them, such as a frozen lump of sea bream roe, cuckooflower and dashi broth, or peanut milk embedded in ice shavings. To see them made and eaten is an experience in itself.

Stage is short at 77 minutes and doesn’t delve too deeply into each of the interns it follows, leaving us at a slight remove, but it delivers a worthwhile and interesting look into a truly one-of-a-kind place.

Join Milwaukee Magazine for a watch party of this Milwaukee Film Festival feature Monday at 7 p.m. 

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.