Culinary School Confidential - Week 4: Poultry, Meats & the PRACTICAL EXAM

Pork Chops w. Sauce Charcutière

Thanks to a weekend of sleep, week four of class went a lot more smoothly than fish week . . . fish week.  I also have to give some credit to my partner for the whole of last week who moves through the steps of a recipe like lightening due to prior restaurant experience.  This definitely left me feeling way too slow at times and clearly demonstrated just how far I have to go to get as fast as I need to be. I also hate feeling that I’m not carrying my weight in team situations. On the plus side, however, it also meant that when I screwed something up or needed extra help from Chef, it barely slowed us down and it definitely removed a lot of the stress of feeling like we might not finish on time. On the whole, I got to enjoy the process a lot more.

Ginger-Marinated Pork Fillet w. Sweet and Sour Sauce

It also happened to be a very delicious week – we covered poultry, beef, pork, and lamb.  There were two recipes a day for most days, and often a demonstration by Chef as well. Because we’re a small class, on most days we got to prepare a dish per person, rather than per team, which meant A LOT of leftovers, and that meant that we ate very well at home. I barely had to cook in the evenings and that in turn meant more time for practicing, studying, life, and everything else.  I generally felt I had just a little more breathing room and every little bit counts.

Marinated Lamb Chops w. Rataouille

I don’t think I could pick a favorite dish from the week—just one fantastic plate after another, each with it’s own wonderful sauce. I’ve discovered I really like making sauce.  The meats were often simply prepared to bring out the flavor of the particular meat; but the sauce which was always built up from stock, the jus, and the browned bits leftover from cooking the meat, would have a whole world of concentrated, layered flavors. I think there is a little bit of magic there.  I suppose this is precisely why French cooking is so focused on sauces.

Poultet Sauté Chausseur aka  Hunter Style Shicken

Sautéed Breast and Braised Leg of Duckling w. Orange Sauce

Before I get too carried away with my day dreams of sauce making, let me assure you that I didn’t get to feel comfortable for long. Each level ends with a practical exam to demonstrate that you have sufficiently mastered the skills to move on to the next level. Knowing that the first practical exam focuses largely on knife skills, I’m sure that it is no surprise to find out that I had been dreading the first exam from the moment classes started.  It is also the reason that I felt the need to study my booty off for each written test, so as to make sure that my grade would be high enough to move on, no matter what happened on the practical exam. Even so, I also knew that I’d need to master the knife skills anyways, otherwise I’d suffer for it later. The dreaded day was Monday.

I spent the entire weekend chopping in preparation. I chopped tomatoes, mushrooms, diced and sliced onions, and turned artichokes.  I cut carrots and turnips into julienne (1 to 2 mm x 6-7 cm) and jardinière (½ cm X 4-5 cm) cuts. 

I practiced tournage on potatoes for hours on Sunday. I did timed turning drills to make sure I could make 8 cocottes in the 15 minutes allotted on the exam. (Cocottes are turned vegetables that are 5 cm long.) I now have containers brimming with little potato footballs and potato shavings filling up my refrigerator. By the end of the weekend, my right index finger was dyed a grimy brownish orange from handling all the carrots and potatoes. The dye was so encrusted into my skin that I’ve only just managed to get my finger to look clean again despite nightly scrubbing with a nail buffer. I also acquired a nice little callous/blister where my index finger grips my knife.

Lamb Stew w. Seasonal Vegetables
The carrots, turnips, and potatoes in the picture are examples of turned vegetables. For more on tournage and the other cuts we use, see my post on Week 1. For more on turning artichokes, check out this blog.

In the midst of all of this, Greg and I had a combined birthday party at our place.  You might wonder why I would schedule a party on an already stressful weekend, but it had been planned way before I knew the date of our exam and it ensured that there would people to eat all of the food I was cutting up. Onions were caramelized and put into a goat cheese quiche. The tomato fondue I had to practice became a topping for crostini. The party gave me another reason to chop.

You might notice that there are no pictures from the party in this post. Needless to say, I was a little preoccupied and I uncharacteristically forgot to take pictures of everything I made or ate.

Blood, sweat, and tears were shed in this apartment last weekend, but by the end of it I felt sufficiently confident that I would at least pass . . . I hoped. 

I was so nervous when the exam began on Monday morning that I cut myself twice during the first few minutes of the exam. I tried to conceal it so that I wouldn’t have to waste time getting a bandage, but I realized my bleeding finger would betray me and I was forced to get a band-aid.  During the first segment we had to dice half an onion, slice the other half, dice a shallot, cut a turnip into jardinière pieces, and julienne a carrot. My hand was shaking while I julienned carrots, so I was forced to slow down a little and the resulting pieces were not as fine as I was able to get them at home.  Additionally, I wasn’t able to finish the carrot in the allotted time, so I lost a few points there.  We had to make the tomato fondue during the second segment, and that went pretty smoothly since I’d practiced it several times at home. 

The final segment involved turning an artichoke and making the eight cocottes, with a total 30 minutes to complete it all.  I was so anxious to get to the cocottes that I kind of rushed through the artichoke and apparently did kind of a shoddy job, so I lost points again. However, I finished all eight of my cocottes and they didn’t look half bad.

In the end I came out alright. I didn't develop amazing knife skills during a transformative movie montage. However, I didn't do too bad either -- especially given the dread I’d been feeling a few days prior. I'll keep working on improving, but for now it's all good. Combined with my written test grades, I got an A overall for the level.  Plus, finishing all the cocottes was a personal triumph that had me riding high for the rest of the day. I’ll be honest with you— I walked out of the room after I was done and pumped my fists into the air in victory. . . so I guess I did get a little bit of a Hollywood ending.

Now the chopping test is over and past, a huge weight has been lifted, and hopefully that will allow me to enjoy the cooking a little more.

*******

Cut and burn count: 5 cuts for the week. In addition to the two cuts during the test and the blister from chopping practice, I grated my hand using the mandolin again and nicked the tip of my finger while wiping down a knife.

I also have started discovering burn marks from burns I don’t remember getting.  They must be from oil spitting from pans and accidentally brushing against hot items. Based on the marks, 2 more burns.

Total: 9 cuts, 3 burns


2 comments:

  1. You could develop good knifing skills in due time, it only takes some practice and, frankly, a few minor cuts.
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  2. The second image shows a palatable dish I'd really like to try making. Though, I'd want to try something flashy in cutting the meat.

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