Q&A With the Director of “Stage: The Culinary Internship”

We wanted to know more about the making of this Milwaukee Film Festival documentary.

ABBY AINSWORTH DIRECTED Stage: The Culinary Internship, a documentary about the nine-month-long intensive internship student-chefs undergo at Mugaritz, a fine-dining restaurant in Spain.

Milwaukee Magazine sponsored the film at this years Milwaukee Film Fest. Stream it on the film fest’s website here.

We spoke with Ainsworth about her experience making the film.

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How did you first hear about Mugaritz and the culinary internship program?

I used to work in the restaurant industry. I thought it was fascinating that my friends, instead of going to a beach vacation, would stage [do the culinary internship] – they’d bring their knives and work for fifteen hours a day in France or Spain. I don’t think a lot of people know about the stage. I thought Mugaritz would be such a great way to show the development of a chef – how different they are from the first day they arrive until they leave.

We always wanted to show it as this exchange of knowledge. The Mugaritz model for staging is like no other.

In the film, the kitchen is much quieter than we see in other culinary documentaries. Was there still a sense of anxiety among the intern-chefs?

Definitely. It was so quiet. More than any other kitchen I’ve ever filmed in. The guests actually come into the kitchen. It’s almost theater, part of the show. The chefs are always on their best behavior. But there definitely is this underlying anxiety and tension. Working in this high-stakes environment of course becomes stressful.

With the documentary, it was difficult to capture these moments of anxiety because people would whisper, and we had no idea what they were saying. It was quite a challenge to show their stress when their kitchen was so quiet

How did you choose the four interns that the documentary focuses on?

There are about 25 total interns that start out. Out of those, we chose 10 to feature, knowing that a lot of them would drop out. There were some interns that you didn’t see in the movie that we thought were great and would make it to the end. And then the next filming trip to Spain came, and we found out they were gone. We wanted to choose people who came from all different backgrounds, had different skill levels. To bring a different story to what Mugaritz means to them.

Did you get to try some of the Mugaritz cuisine?

I ate the staff meal every day I was filming there, which was unbelievable. It’s different from anything you’ve ever tried before. There was this one dish that was a squid, almost like a donut. It was black and there were squares of squid in it.

Some things are a bit challenging to try. Some dishes are a texture you’ve never had before. But it’s still pleasant and makes you think of food from a totally different perspective.

Do you know what any of the interns in the film are doing now?

COVID has definitely put a damper on these kids’ careers. I stay in touch with Kim [an intern from South Korea] more than anyone. He is working at a wine bar right now, and he was working at the Tartine in Seoul. He’s very smart. He wants to open his own restaurant one day, and I think he’ll go very far. He loves absorbing everything to do with food, and I think that’s what makes a great chef.

Are you planning to work on any films in the near future?

I was developing another documentary that has been put on hold. It focuses on a culinary school in Toronto that works with people with mental health and addiction issues. It’s an amazing program, extremely transformative and life-changing. Mental health and addiction is especially prevalent in kitchens.

That documentary’s still on hold. I’m really thankful that Stage came out when it did. Because I feel for the documentary filmmakers who halfway through a film and now they can’t finish it.

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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.