It’s a slow and unenthusiastic walk to school. I’m not quite sure what to expect. It’s not just that it’s such a long time since I’ve sat an exam, but this is a cooking exam. We only have one chance to prepare our dishes. We can only use the ingredients we are given so there’s no sloping off to the dry store or fridge if I mess something up. Plus we are being judged on hygiene and food safety, our work flow and wastage. I know that I will have to reproduce one of ten dishes, chosen randomly. I have practised all the dishes except the calf liver. I couldn’t source the liver anywhere and hope that that means Chef can’t either. Also it was my least favourite dish and one that I don’t think I will ever make again.
There’s much chatter about which dish we are each hoping for. Having boned and portioned six chickens over the past two weekends, I wouldn’t mind doing either of the poultry dishes. I love cooking steak so those dishes should be okay too. And fish is reasonably straight forward unless I mess up the filleting, or overcook it. In fact I feel pretty confident about most of the dishes. I’ve also got a colour photo of each of the possibilities as an instant reminder of what Chef will be looking for.
But first, the written test. We’ve got one hour to answer a set of multiple choice questions about cooking terms, methods and techniques, and to respond to two scenarios: one about an accident in a kitchen, and the other involving food poisoning. It’s worth 10 per cent of the final mark. It feels odd for all of us to be in one room together in complete silence. Most of the questions are straight forward. There are some multiple choice ones I’m not sure of so I leave them for later. I remember my own words of advice to the kids before their exams – take your time, read the question carefully, and check your work. I answer the questions I’m sure of and for the others I use a process of elimination or make what I hope is an intelligent guess. The hour is up and we’re back in the student room going over our recipes and notes.
We have each been given a coloured fruit burst. The colour of our lollie is matched up with the dish we are to prepare for the exam. We have twenty minutes to read our notes and prepare a plan before heading into the kitchen with only an ingredient list. We aren’t allowed to take in any notes.
My purple fruit burst delivers me supreme de saumon a l’estragon, pate a nouille and sauce a la tomate et a basilie – salmon in a tarragon sauce, and pasta with a tomato and basil sauce. I spend my twenty minutes focusing on critical factors. The list includes:
- salmon must be medium rare
- no colour on the shallots when sweating for the sauce
- lots of tarragon
- reduce the sauce so it coats the back of the spoon
- square off the salmon nicely and remove the blood line
- cook skin side down
- no stalks on the basil for tom sauce and add it at the very last minute
- don’t play with sauce or it’ll mush up too much
- Cut the toms into concassee – even dices but minimise wastage
- Make pasta dough as soon as I’m in the kitchen so it can rest
- check there’s no old dried bits of pasta in the machine
- make the pasta water as salty as the Mediterranean
- cook pasta at the last minute and don’t forget the parmesan
- remember to taste taste taste
I’ll never remember it all but I hope that by writing it down before going into the kitchen, some of it will stick.
The atmosphere in the kitchen is strange and strained. The next two and a half hours account for 45 per cent of our final mark. There’s no talking. The food safety expert is walking around the room with a clip board. She’ll be examining all our practices in great detail and, along with Chef, assessing our food.
I join the queue to wash my hands before touching anything. Good start. I set to work. I know what I’m doing. The plan seems to have stayed in my head. I’m washing down and sanitising between tasks. I’m wasting nothing. I’m storing the prepped food in the fridge. There’s a lot of last minute cooking and I’m ready for it. The fish is skinned, cut and squared off. The pasta has been rolled and shaped. The tomato sauce has reduced and is ready for a quick reheat. All the ingredients for the tarragon cream sauce are ready. I think I’m working quite fast but I notice that some are ready to present their dishes. I ignore them. I pan fry the salmon, set it aside. Make the tarragon sauce. It’s rich and creamy and tastes heavenly. The pasta has had its two minutes in the boiling water. I plate up. It looks pretty good. It’s a relief to hand it over for assessment.
Once everyone has presented we start cleaning up and talking about the night ahead – a celebratory meal at Chef’s restaurant Zibibbo. Late into the night it’s karaoke, games of pool, and tequila shots. We’re no longer talking about the exam, just conscious that we will get our results in a few hours.