“I don’t know what you are doing over there, but I am cooking real food here.”
Intensive Intermediate Cuisine was 5 weeks of cooking regional French food. We stuffed an animal into another animal, wrapped up deliciousness with fat and more fat, blended vegetables to make flans and custard-textured material out of fish. Sauces and jus were perfected for taste, seasoning and consistency. Carving birds and filleting fish were rehearsed. The learning curve was rather flat compared to Basic Cuisine. It was more about minimizing errors than learning new techniques.
I am cooking real food here. That was my reply back across the room when someone alerted the class that they smelled something burnt. 6 days a week, 6-12 hours of classes per day. There were long days when sitting through another demonstration seemed too much. There were hungry days from, ironically, not enough time to eat. I made sure I tasted, and re-tasted my food on those days. Some people were pushed and it was really during times of tiredness and stress that tempers flared. I heard there was a little pushing to the sink, equipment missing and nearly always found at the end of practical, assistants not quite willing to do their job to grab stuff from the basement, cuts and burns were not infrequent. The coolest and the calmest? A gentleman with many years of working as a chef. Never a flinch, a step too quick or a voice too loud. We were a competitive class and I am no exception. But hey, what better way to improve when feeling pushed?
Le Cordon Bleu was for fun or hobby to some. For others it was their entry into the career of being a chef, or to up-skill in their established career as a chef. A few wanted to get into a food-related industry. For me coming to Paris was for hobby. I have had so much fun. Friends at school rock. The pubs next to school are our second homes. However the class went, we would so often unwind and relax with a drink. I could count the number of alcohol-free days in the last 5 weeks in one hand. The time of my life wound be the best description. The school kitchen is hot, intense and I enjoy every moment of it. The “go-go-go” energy and being alert with all senses is euphoric. Couple of classes we worked in groups and they were the finest hours of school. Here are some sounds bites.
- “Sorry, it’s my shoes, I walk too fast” said the chef when something smelled burnt (again)
- As chef emptied a bottle of white wine in the stock pot he said “we are making big mama fumet (fish stock) here!”
- A student tried to answer a question in demonstration. The chef paused and and looked at him on a slanted angle. “I think I will reserve a place for Intermediate for you…”
- Translator saw a bug on the floor and went about to chase it. The chef exclaimed “Ratatouille!?”
- We are meant to caress the fish like we do with women
- Is there a better pronunciation for “bien” than “beeennnner”?
- “Are there any other question apart from the obvious, where is the bacon?”
- A little self-congratulations: I plated my coq au vin (pre-marinated) dish in 60 minutes during practical. Even the chef was wondering what happened when she looked at the clock. And yes, it tasted good.
- Olive oil was apparently expensive according to one chef. Another chef then proceeded to cover up his olive oil bottle and call it the mysterious oil during demonstrations.
- “Make your dream come true” was the favorite line from the chef in charge of Intermediate.
School ended all too quickly for me. We had our practical exam yesterday and it was a spectacular one from my point of view. We either had to cook veal with risotto and asparagus or monk fish with chicken jus, artichoke and a type of fluffy savory pancake. I had the fish and I was pushed for time. In the prior practicals, I finished the veal in 2 hours and the monk fish very close to 2.5 hours. We had 2.5 hours for the exam and we also had to make bearnaise sauce during this time. Every minute late was -2% and if you were late by 7-8 minutes then good luck to passing. Seemed ridiculous when the stations were not set up properly, especially for the students who entered earlier. Never mind the clocks ticking. Move!
12:32 – Doors open for me and another student. We were the 4th pair. 2 students entered every 10 minutes in a staggered format so that the food can be served to the external judges immediately when finished. There was 3 fish and 1 veal left to pick from. Lucky her, she got the veal. I noted to my self, we were allowed in 2 minutes late. Not good enough.
12:40 – I am set up, stoves and oven on, knives out. Calm and collected. Monk fish skin was easily torn off and then filleted. They have the most simple central bones. I spent another 5-7 minutes cleaning the membrane off the flesh. The fillets were then opposed head-to-tail, seasoned, wrapped with bacon and chopped parsley. Tighten the plastic film until it looks like a giant sausage. Chill to hold shape.
1: 10 – Pan on the hob to heat up before I hacked into chicken wings to break them up and brown them for the jus. Chopped up mirepoix of onion, shallots, garlic. Multiple mini-deglazes for the chicken wings with water to get maximum colour and flavour. De-greased the pan, dumped my chopped aromatics and let them brown too. Some more deglazing before covering the pan with water to let the juices simmer. Throw in some thyme and bay leaf for good measure.
1:30 – Start my reduction for the bearnaise sauce. Shallots, chervil, tarragon, peppercorn, cider vinegar and white wine.
1:35 – My friend on the far end who entered 30 minutes looked stressed. Shit. he is usually quite fast too. If he is feeling the heat then something is not going right.
1:35 – Start turning the artichoke. Trim until a disk is left, cut it into wedges and remove all the choke to prevent discoloration. All the acid in the world wont help here. A splash of vinegar from in front of me in the water anyway. I stopped half way on the artichokes before thinking I needed to start the batter for the pancake to let it rise.
1:40 – Batter for the pancake. Wheat flour, rye flour, potato starch, yolks, milk and fresh yeast. Milk tepid to kick start the yeast. Stashed it on the shelf above the stove to keep warm. Egg whites in a very clean bowl in the fridge. Back to the artichokes. Chucked the artichokes in a pan with butter to cook. I noticed for the first time I am behind my own mental schedule. Move damn it!
1:55 – Haha what is that small saucepan doing on my stove. It’s black! who would leave it there. Fuck… it’s my reduction for my bearnaise. Yes, blame it on an unfamiliar class room and stove. A few more descriptive words muttered under my breath. It took me just 2 minutes to get a new one going. I was getting frustrated at my end of the kitchen where no taps or sink is free. The dishwasher man is swamped on the only sink on this side. Even grabbing the paper towel from the dispenser was a struggle. Note to self, I can complain all day but the food wont cook.
2:00 – Blanch the cauliflower and broccoli florets, crisp up some diced bacon for the pancake. Someone took the few pieces of bacon in my fridge that I left after wrapping up the fridge. Where is the fucking bacon? It’s 2 pm and my mental time marker should be just finishing the bearnaise right now. Go go go! Check oven to make sure it was on and hot.
2:10 – Start the bearnaise with a sabayon with the acidic reduction, egg yolks and some water. Season early to dissolve the salt well. Whisk hard and fast over a baine marie. I glances around the room. More calm over the veal side. Our line? My friend on the far left is looking rather rattled. He has to finish in 20 minutes. Chef is counting the minutes ever so often. Whisk whisk whisk… Ok, ready for clarified butter. Strain sauce, chop some more fresh chervil and tarragon. Taste, happy with seasoning. Scrap into ramekin for judging. Deliver to the chef.. and where did he go? No time to wait for him.
2:25 – Running out of time fast. My friend on the fish plated his. There were some loud noises and some worried looks from that side of the kitchen but I was too busy to care now. We exchanged glances while crossing paths and I swear there was the devil in both our eyes. I don’t think he has seen me getting stressed.
2:25 – I grabbed the fish out of the blast chiller to let it warm up a bit. Strained the chicken jus. Looks a bit pale for my liking and I shook my head – shit..sigh. Where is the damn colour!!! I gave the small saucepan a shake and the browner liquid appeared. Good, it was just a layer of fat above. Magnifique chef! Let it reduce slowly.
2:25 – Whisk egg whites for the pancake. I walked around the room looking for a pan to cook the fish while whisking the shit out of the whites. A pinch of salt for the judge’s palate- 3 retired French real chefs. Mixed the batter, and added some pepper. I needed a second pan for pancakes. “Anyone got another pancake pan!?”
2:30 – Unwrap the fish out of the plastic film and tie portions with kitchen twine so they hold when I cut it into rounds .
2:40 – All set to cook fish and pancakes. 20 minutes left. You are joking. There was calm from the veal side which was even more unsettling. This was time for the second student to plate monk fish – I don’t even know what happened. Too deep in my station. My heart rate was easily at the 120 mark. The third student on the monk fish was plating his. It was probably the first time I have seem him move a little faster than normal.
2:45 – 2 pancakes on, fish getting a blast of heat from the stove to colour. Fish straight into the oven, mental clock -for the fish = 7 minutes and out.
2:50 – First 2 pancakes. Seemed a bit thin. Do I have time for a second or not? Jesus… just start another 2. Worry about it later. The handles were getting hot but by this time it didn’t really matter if my fingers were bien cuit or not.
2:52 – Actually, I wasn’t aware of the time by now. Chef is going down the line announcing minutes left to each student. Some more loud noises – this time from a friend on the veal side. Gosh, what could happen now? They looked quite in control all day. No time. Back to my side. Fish out, feels good. Definitely cooked. Was it over cooked? I poked my knife in one, looks ok. Some slightly more translucent in the middle. Good sign. But really, what can I do now? Forgot to check seasoning here. Please bacon… make love and saltiness to the fish.
2: 55 – Remove the kitchen twine from the fish, pat dry and place on the tray. Flipped the other 2 pancakes (now the handles were freaking hot) straight onto my hands. Second batch seemed better. By fingers seemed even better cooked. But I had no time to check and gambled the inside of the thicker ones were cooked. Slapped them on the tray. Some garnish and frantic attempts to position the food so that it looked like someone who was half in control made it.
2:58 – Tasted my chicken jus. It was a while since we made jus and every chef reduces it to different consistency. Mine was still fairly runny. 30 seconds on high should be fine. Shit..I hope it doesn’t get too salty. Poured it into the ramekin and put a plastic film over the top so no film can form on top of the jus.
2:59 – “Chef , j’ai fini.” I placed a piece of parsley on the pancakes and some chiffonade parsley on the fish as I announced to the chef I have finished. Old chefs like branches of green. I took a few deep breaths. The last 40 minutes felt like 5 seconds. I put my hands on the bench and just starred into my station, wondering where the hell went wrong with my timing. It was a tough dish, I thought to myself.
3:00 – The assistant came to take my plate down for tasting. ”You have everything?” she asked. I wasn’t really looking. “Oui” I said. Some more self-reflection at the stove. Fuck. what is in this saucepan? “wait wait!” It was my artichokes. Completely forgot about it after I cooked it soft. I was supposed to finish it with a little chicken jus. The assistant was at the door already with my dish. She apparently didn’t hear me. I chased her out the door with my pan thinking that she has refused to allow me to add the artichokes. I stopped her above the stairs. “My artichokes. I am sorry” breathing heavy. She was happy to wait. Wow. I placed 9 pieces on the plate before she continued to walk to the judging room.
I leaned against the door for a few seconds to recover after yet another close call. I went back to the kitchen and ate one of the artichokes. Under seasoned for sure. Greasy. I had not time to check these. Sigh. My mind was all mushed up already thinking what the hell happened today. I never had a chance to taste the pancakes. The fish looked fine but I could have gave it more colour and a dab of salt. The garnish for the pancakes were a bit soggy already. The jus and the pancakes were both elements that were highly subjective as well so no control over that. I really wanted to finish strong but it felt like the opposite. I cleaned up and walked out of the kitchen, taking a 10 second pause to reflect that this will be the last time I walk out of this place for a long time. I probably sat in the Winter Garden ( an communal area at school) drinking a can of Oringina for a good 5 minutes by myself. Some people were happy with their food I heard. Some had a few mistakes like me. I know I passed but I wasn’t really here to make passable food. I have had better days and this was not the day for the exception. Too many variables on this dish. If only I had the veal where I think the cooking end-points were more well-defined. At least you can stick a thermometer in the veal. Tzu, get over it.
Well, it’s beer time and hugs. Even with all the drama, there is nothing quite like an ice-cold beer hitting you after coming hot out of the kitchen. Coldplay concert tonight!
Today we got our certificates. I did better than I thought for the exam. Actually quite well for the exam. I remembered the 3rd monk fish student during the exam. It was very humbling to see him move with precision without being hurried. He was the gentleman who is a chef already. Never a move too fast or a moment too stressed. He didn’t really care about numbers but he did really well on the exam a with at least 4-5% above the rest. It goes to how good he really was.
I had a very good prior average for the practical classes evaluation so I ended up having the highest total term score in the class. I really didn’t think on the back of that exam I was going to finish this well. But the judges thought otherwise. And our group of 8 had (unknowingly) all the top 5 students in the class. The A-team. The numbers don’t mean much in the end. What really counts as our main Intermediate chef said is what is on the plate. I think most people know where they stand themselves and many just don’t care (good for them). Cooking is one of the many things in life that if you try hard enough, you can do well. There is always some agreement to what is good or bad. Bring me to the game and I will push myself in this environment. It’s just unfortunate that the school grades us with numbers everyday. A better system, I propose, would be either a pass/fail or a ABCDE grading. A more personal feedback on what the chefs thought on the exam dish would be much more informative than numbers. Plus, doing well at school hardly reflects on how you will do in a busy kitchen. I am under no delusion of that kind.
I was very happy to hear from a friend who overheard chefs talking about me in the corridor as we were cooking. They noticed that I was fast and did very well in class. Something the chef didn’t really notice in the first term because I had black hair and glasses. Now that I am the only Asian in the group it was obvious to him. That’s all I needed to know – until I come back in a few year to finish the last and final term.