It’s the real deal. We are cooking for paying customers. We’re running the Le Cordon Bleu Brasserie for dinner Tuesday, and lunch and dinner Wednesday. The superior students are doing the rest of the week. There’s a lot of hype. The week has been given a big build up by the Chefs. This is a chance to showcase the school to the public. It’s got to be good. Speed will be important but we also need to take care. Communication will also be important. The more they all talk about it, the more the pit of my stomach somersaults. Will it be like Hell’s Kitchen? Someone predicts that there will be tears. How will our bodies cope with the long hours? Those who have worked in a restaurant know what to expect but for me it’s a completely new experience.
Prep day on Monday is long but Chef is pleased with how much we get done. I’m on lamb with Ravi and Rob which means cutting, trimming and rolling thirty racks for the lamb fillet with coriander presto.
Others are trimming asparagus, making salsas, trimming pork, proving bread, balling melons, making ricotta, cutting vegetables and making cannoli. The most intriguing activity today is the production of the chocolate ball crisp with strawberry, and pistachio pineapple basil and lemon coulis. We haven’t made this in class but once Chef shows Vincent how to do it, he’s underway. It takes all day. But the result is spectacular. The strawberry balls are sprayed with white chocolate. The other dessert that’s going to be on offer is homemade ricotta cannoli with red fruits. And there’s a cheese plate.
Huge pots of stock are bubbling away. As the day progresses, the fridge begins to fill up. All the LCB chefs pop in and out at various times during the day to discuss progress, reinforcing the importance of what we are doing.
By early evening, Chef says the mise en place is done for the day. There’s now only last minute things to be done first thing in the morning. It’s time to decide which station we want to work at for the next two days. I haven’t given it any particular consideration but choose entrees:
cold melon soup with coriander and olive oil pearl; seared scallops with tomato and cucumber salsa and nasturtium salad; tomato mozzarella revisited; and asparagus mousseline sauce truffle oil with poached egg and parmesan emulsion.
I try not to think too much about the enormity of the task. But I don’t know what the parmesan emulsion will look like let alone how to make it. I have no idea about the asparagus mousseline sauce. I am confident all will become clear but I go into school feeling anxious and stressed. There are three of us on the station. How will it work? And how on earth will we get such a wide variety of tasks done in time for the entrees for each table to go out together. I fear that the menu is too elaborate for us but Chef is very reassuring. He has expectations but wants us to work out how to do it. And he has the mousseline and emulsion under control. After some more basic prep is done, Vincent, Lucy and I leave the kitchen to discuss our plan of attack. Vincent is the calming influence. He’s worked in a kitchen. I have a thousand questions – my voice rising with each one. But once we have talked through the logistics, I’m slightly calmer. I’m a planner and a organiser. I don’t like being unprepared. And I don’t like surprises so I want to make sure every contingency is covered. We decide to run our station like a production line rather than having each person responsible for every single component of the dishes which is how some other stations are operating. I offer to do the cooking. That’s searing the scallops, reheating the blanched asparagus in water and butter, and reheating the poached eggs in hot salted water.
Lucy will plate the mozzarella dish. It’s a cold dish but is intricate and detailed. Vincent will be the key man communicating with Chef and plating up, which means he does the fancy stuff on the asparagus dish.
Dinner starts from 6.30 and at 5.30 we get the call from Rob, who’s Chef Francis’s right hand man, to produce one of each of our dishes for inspection. “Yes Chef” booms around the kitchen and so it begins. Chef Paul arrives. He circles the kitchen taking in everything but he doesn’t say much. His observations will contribute to our overall assessments.
The asparagus, straight from the fridge, takes longer than I expect. I adjust the plan in my head. I also realise that I am going to need the pan searing hot before I put in the scallops but not so hot that they burn so I’m going to have anticipate the timing of each call to start the entrees. Our plates look fantastic! Chef was right to push us although it still feels slightly uncomfortable.
We’re all wound like a spring desperate to get going. Chef Paul calls the first order in a strong commanding voice. “Table four, two amuse bouche, three scallops and one asparagus, and to follow two lamb, two pork.”
I can’t hold the information in my head. I’m flustered. I check the docket. I get out what I need from the fridge and turn up the fire under the scallop pan. I can’t start cooking until I get the order “entree table four away”. That means I cook. Vincent and Lucy are plating up ready for the hot food. Another order comes in. Again, I can’t keep the details in my head. We get table four away and before long we get into a sort of rhythm. I don’t think it’s pretty but it’s working and the feedback from front of house is encouraging. The challenges keep coming though. Some of the scallops are huge and need longer to cook. The asparagus still seems to take an age. The orders come in a big rush. Everyone is frantic except the girls on dessert and cheese. Their time will come. There’s real pressure on the mains station. They have so much to do but they’re holding up. And it’s spectacular food.
I count the dockets against the table numbers. We have served entrees for 60 people. The main part of the night is over for us. We help others were we can. We check our ingredients. We need to have enough for lunch and dinner tomorrow for about 70 people. Vincent makes a list of what we need in the morning – more salsa, more amuse bouche, more mozzarella balls, more asparagus, more nasturtium leaves, more emulsion and more mousseline sauce. We have to get it all done and ready for lunch service at 12.30. It’s midnight before I’ve ironed a fresh outfit and collapse into bed.
We’re a bit of a weary bunch and arrive in dribs and drabs to face another day. But it’s not long before we are all focused on our tasks. There’s only 20 for lunch and it seems like a doddle but one of the tables is for 14. God, please don’t let them all order scallops. The order comes in for six scallops, three on each plate – that’s 18. I get underway. They’re off to be plated. “Where are the other scallops?” shouts Chef. I’m a plate short. “Three minutes, Chef” I reply, with confidence I don’t feel. How could I have miscounted?
I alter my approach for the evening service. As each order comes in, I am counting out the scallops into separate bowls and lining them up in order. I won’t miscount again. Lunch is done. We get a two hour break and the kitchen empties out. I have no doubt that Chef Francis is still there though. After toast and tea, a lie down and a fresh uniform I feel almost human again. A double strength coffee helps. There are 14 tables tonight. But the arrival of the guests is staggered. It’s so much easier. There are quite big gaps between bursts of activity. My system with the bowls is perfect. Chef Francis reminds me to wash the pan out in hot water after each batch of scallops is cooked. All my efforts go into cooking the scallops evenly so that each plate looks the same. There’s a bit of bickering at other stations. This kind of pressure brings out the best and the worst in people and we are a bit like the seven dwarfs … sad, happy, grumpy, sleepy … although I’m the first to admit that I can play a combination of roles all within the space of one day.
But by the end of the night, we’re a tired but happy bunch. There are lots of compliments. High fives. Group hugs. Some of us are very halfhearted about the clean up. But Chef Francis is like an energiser bunny with fresh batteries. He’s not chuffed that we have slowed down so much but he maintains his wonderful sense of humour and good nature. I go home with a new bench mark for tiredness and an even greater appreciation for the Chefs who do this day in and day out.