Culinary School Confidential: Level 3 Throwdown Part 1

Fish Americaine
Poissonier Dish - Fish Américaine with Mussels and Shrimp

Level 3 went by in a flash. However, it was a dramatic flash with a lot of ups and downs. It felt a lot like being on reality show cooking competition for a month straight.

Given that I spent so much time describing the first two levels in detail, it might seem weird that I'm now going to run through all of the third level in three posts. However, this level had a completely different structure.

Level 3 is all about consistency and timing. Throughout the level you're put in various configurations of groups to produce an assigned menu, and each course in the menu has to be presented at a different time.  In the most basic version, you rotate through stations similar to what you might find in a restaurant kitchen – Garde Manger, Poissonier, Saucier, and Pâtissier— and prepare the dish assigned to that station.  By the end of the rotation you’ve done each dish.  Some recipes we'd seen before in a previous level, and they were brought back, sometimes with slight changes.  At the beginning, I liked all of the dishes, but what you make is also your lunch, so by the end of the week you are thoroughly sick of that menu. 

The reality show part comes into play in that you’re given a time at which you have to present your four plated dishes and they have to be there to the minute.  As the clock would count down to the given time, I’d often find myself frantically running to get the food on the plate, practically throwing on the garnish, and then running with a tray filled with plates down the aisle to get critiqued at the “judges’ table.”

On really good days, everything would just flow and I’d feel like I was kicking Morimoto’s butt. On really bad days it was like all I had was an empty plate for Alton Brown to comment on – which is pretty much just like standing there naked.

Pot de Creme with Tuille
Patissier Dish - Pot de Crème with Tuiles

The first day of each menu tended to be the roughest and my plates on these days seemed to end up looking like crap.  By the end of the rotation, everyone’s plates seemed to look better and the day would progress more smoothly, as if even though everyone had been cooking different dishes, by the end the week the process had been learned by some form of group osmosis.

At the end of every rotation, there was a “mock-midterm” during which we’d all have to prepare and present two of the courses we’d been practicing that week. On these days we’d come in and a draw slip of paper out of a bowl that listed our presentation order and the two times at which each of our courses were due at the chef’s table.  We’d start at 9 a.m., were given a few minutes to grab our ingredients and then we’d cook through to our first presentation time. With my luck, I almost always drew position 1 or 2.

Beef Bourguignon
Saucier Dish - Beef Bourguignon - Practiced at home. (Not the best photo, sorry.)
Yeah, we make the noodles too.

All of this was in preparation for the actual midterm.  The midterm would work pretty much the same way as these mock-midterms, but the dishes could come from any of the16 dishes made during the level.  Half the class would do a Poissonier/ Pâtissier combo and the other half would do a Garde Manger/Saucier combo chosen by Chef, but we would not find out what the 4 actual dishes were until the day of the test.  On that day, we had a few minutes to look through our recipes and make notes before turning the recipes over, grab our ingredients, then cook through until your first presentation time. The first person’s fist dish was to be shown at 12:45. 

Now, it might seem like 3 hours and 45 minutes is a lot of time to prepare two dishes, but most dishes involve multiple components. You might need to prep ingredients, make a sauce, and prepare garnishes that pretty much constituted another dish for both of your courses. You also need to think about making sure your food is hot when you serve it and that everything you’ve made holds until the time of service. For example, my old nemesis, Hollandaise, was a component on one of the level’s Garde Manger dishes. If that sauce broke at the last minute, you might find yourself scrambling to save it or having to make a whole new one. (I am happy to report that Hollandaise and I have made peace and it did not betray me all month long.)

Poached Eggs on Macedoine Vegetables with Hollandaise
Garde Manger Dish- - Poached Egg on a Bed of Diced Vegetables with Hollandaise

There is actually quite a bit to do in the allotted time, and you really can’t be late. For every minute you’re late, you’re docked a point off of your final grade. Knowing that these dishes could come back to haunt me on the midterm, made it really important to me to get the timing down on them as we practiced them in class. 

Sadly, Time and I have a tenuous relationship at best.

To Be Continued . . .

Apple Tart w. Rosette Center
Patissier - Apple Tart -  It came back. This time we altered the arrangement and practiced making these rosettes in the middle. You can find the recipe here.

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