I try to think of it as just another lesson but there is no escaping the fact that it is exam day. I am at school ridiculously early. I just want to get it over and done with. We all gather in the lecture theatre where the academic director Sue, and Chef Paul and Chef Francis go through the details for the practical. We will be given recipes and half an hour to prepare our work plan. We have four hours max to complete all the dishes but can start presenting them for marking as soon as they are ready. Thanks to an earlier exam practice session we know the basic techniques that are being tested. So it’s no major surprise when Sue hands out the recipes and we see there’s soup, a lamb dish, a potato dish and a cold souffle. The Chefs remind us of a few things to watch out for and we can ask questions but there are very few. Most of us are busy writing our work flow.
The atmosphere in the kitchen is very different to the usual lesson. There is no banter. The concentration is intense. Because the souffle needs time to set everyone in class starts with this recipe. I can tell by the frantic whisking that’s going on around the kitchen. I’ve set myself a fast pace and mine is first in the blast chiller. I rush through the coffee flavoured creme anglaise that goes with it. It coats the back of the spoon, just, but it seems a little thin. I decide to box on. There’s no time to redo anything and I’m sure it would be frowned upon anyway.
The soup is next on my work flow and I remember Chef Paul telling us earlier not to reduce it too much. “It’s a soup not a sauce,” he said. I’ve got good colour on the onions. I’ve burnt off the wine and cognac. As usual, the veal and chicken stocks we are provided with are brilliant quality. I’m preparing the lamb while the soup is simmering. I taste the soup. Wow, it’s good and it’s ready. I can’t believe it. I take a quick glance around the kitchen. No one else is anywhere near ready to present their soup. I start to doubt myself. Have I missed something out? Is it really ready? I taste it again. It is good. I decide I have to back myself and tell Chef Francis that I am about to present my soup. I try to ignore his look of surprise. A number, not a name, goes on the plate and out it goes for assessment. One dish down, three to go.
Pommes Anna have become my all time favourite spud dish – thin round slices of agrias neatly layered and buttered in a small frying pan and baked until golden on the outside and soft in the middle. I’ve made these heaps of times because they are so delicious, so it doesn’t take long to tick them off the list.
I’m confident with the lamb dish. It’s the same recipe we used in the restaurant last week and I must have boned and rolled at least a dozen of them. The coriander pesto which coats the lamb is a vibrant green. There’s a hint of the chilli and a slight tang of lemon juice. I get it rolled and tied up. It could be neater but I’m sure it’ll hold together. We’re serving it with green beans and flaked almonds tossed in brown butter.
While the lamb is cooking I plate up the souffle. The coffee anglaise isn’t great but the souffle and the chantilly cream are. Three down, one to go.
The lamb has reached 52 degrees and it’s resting while I reheat the beans. Chef reminds us that there’s only half an hour to go. I’m well within time but others are cutting it really fine. I admire their calmness. If they haven’t presented their dishes by 1pm, they don’t get any marks and that’s a big deal because this session accounts for 50 per cent of our overall mark. My lamb leaves the kitchen. I’m so relieved it’s over. I fear for some of the others, especially those only just cooking the lamb because it’s got to rest, and there’s only 15 minutes left. By a couple of minutes to one, the dishes are fair flying out of the kitchen. Everyone makes it. There’s a bouyant atmosphere as we start the clean up. Chef Francis enters the kitchen with a very wide smile. “Very good, very good. The standard was very high.” Fantastic, but all we really want to know is if there are any re-sits. He asks who served the first soup. “Moi, Chef.” For him to single it out means it was either very bad or very good. “Very very good”, he says. I am really chuffed. After 10 weeks of lessons I feel confident that I can trust my taste buds.
Rob calls the class together and makes a lovely speech thanking Chef, and farewelling me. All the others are going on to Superior in January. I have different adventures.
There’s time for caffeine before the hour-long theory exam. It’s multi-choice and is 10 per cent of the overall mark but still there’s last minute cramming as we try to remember the key French terms, cooking temperatures for different dishes and the behaviour of yeast and eggs.
It’s a reasonably straight forward test for me but I suspect it’s a bit tougher for those with English as a second language. But Sue is on hand to help interpret the questions.
It’s all over for me except for graduation next week. There are high fives, and lots of hugs. The relationships have been short and intense and some of them will be lasting. There’s a promise that if I call into school at certain times next year, there will be superior food for me to try.
School empties out. If I didn’t have so much to carry I would have skipped home.
No blog is complete without food photos. There was no time to take any during the exam so here are photos of the four exam dishes there were prepared in previous classes.