Culinary School Confidential: The Finish Line

Practicing Short Ribs for la Familia

With my time in the kitchen wrapped up, the finish line was within view. The only thing standing between me and my toque was the final. 

The final is structured almost exactly like the midterm we took at the end of Level 3.  On the day of the final you come in and draw a combo of two dishes from those that had been on the menu in the restaurant. The combinations would be either a garde manger/saucier or a poissonnier/patissier pairing, with a possibility of four combinations.  Once you draw your dishes, you are given ten minutes to takes notes from the recipes to work from during the test.  Then the clock starts and you have a set amount of time in which to prepare four plates of each of your dishes. You are docked points for every minute you are late. You get roughly four hours for the first dish, depending on the combo, and the second dish is presented about forty-five minutes after that. The only major difference is that the final is judged by a panel of industry professionals. 

Leading up to the final, I was actually feeling pretty good.  I think Level 5 may have burnt all the anxiety out of me.  I still wanted to finish strong, and I certainly took the exam seriously, but I wasn’t all that nervous about it.  

It probably helped that we had our final right after the New Year.  On the one hand, we did have it looming over our holidays, but on the other hand the days off provided a nice mental break just before the exam.  I also used the time to practice a few of the dishes in a more relaxed setting.  The holidays conveniently provide many occasions to cook during which there are plenty of people around to eat the food.

While I was home in Florida for Christmas, I made our short rib dish and a version of the banana cream tarts for the family.

Practicing Short Ribs for la Familia

Practicing Short Ribs for la Familia

We had to two sets of friends come into town, so I invited them over and practiced more dishes.

  Tagliolini with Roasted Mushrooms and Fennel Cream - At home
I made the pasta for our friends Sarah, Gino, and Kevin from Los Angeles

Rack of Lamb with Artichokes and Goat Cheese Sauce - At home
And I practiced the lamb for Cat and Jason, in town for London.

New Year’s weekend I practiced several more dishes, including the artic char and the baba with calvados combo, and I took the baba with me to a New Year’s party. 

  Baba au Rhum -- at home 

Now that I think about it, I got some nice memories out of these dishes. 

It was good to practice them as well, because the way we prepare them in the restaurant in larger quantities in preparation for service, is different than one would if making only four plates to be served right away. Preparing them all the way through helped me get my head around the timing and work flow. For those dishes I didn’t practice at home, I at least spent time thinking through the procedure and considering a plan for how they should be worked on.

On the day of the final, I felt as ready as I was going to be.  I drew my combo and felt even more comfortable – artic char and baba with calvados. Not my favorite dishes from those we’d learned, but they happened to be the only dishes I had practiced as a combo.  Score.

Pan-Seared Artic Char with grilled radicchio di Treviso, pancetta chickpea cake and sauce romesco

Calvados Baba with Chestnut Ice Cream, Toasted Pine nuts, and Apple Chips

I was pretty uncharacteristically zen while I cooked.  I didn’t even have to start singing “The Lady in Red” to myself as I did during the midterm. I had totally intended to do that.  

It is possible that maybe I was a little to relaxed because I ended up having to rush the plating on my artic char a bit.  I think I may have thrown the last char onto its plate. Nonetheless, I got it out on time, and then it was smooth sailing to put the finishing touches on the baba.  My plates weren’t perfect. I could pick out a dozen little things I would have tweaked in a perfect world.  However, they were complete, on time, and on the whole, not too shabby.  I felt fairly satisfied with what I’d put out .  .  . although I do wish I’d had more time to plate that fish.  Nevertheless, it was all done without any major crisis, gaping holes, or frantic hair pulling, and that was the most important thing.

After our dishes had all been presented, the only thing left was to face the firing squad.  We left the kitchen, entered the dining room, and sat in groups to await critiques from our judges.  Knowing that the judges would be successful and respected members of the food community, I had deliberately shoved thoughts of them out of my head. Now there was no escaping. Luckily, though, it wasn’t too bad at all. They were quite fair.  I think that’s saying a lot because I had Aar√≥n Sanchez on my panel, and happily, I did not get Chopped.  

Actually, no one did. On the whole my class did quite well, because, well .  .  . we rock.

My class at Graduation.

We graduated the next day, on January 5th.   It might be the last time that we’re all together, which of course makes me very sentimental.   We’ve worked so closely together for the last six months, that it seems weird that I will no longer be seeing these guys everyday. However, I can’t wait to see what everyone does. This is a very talented group of people.  

Me and my gals on Graduation day.

I know six months doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but they were packed and intense, and their passing required celebrating.  A lot of celebrating.

We drank.
Post final Celebration

 Now that we're no longer students, we can drink with our chefs!

We dined.
Dinner with the  gals and their guys at Mercer Kitchen.

And partied.  I honored all the fancy techniques I learned by hosting a junk food party where all the guests were invited to bring their favorite trashy snacks and drink cheap champagne.

Thanks to everyone who came for coming to celebrate with me. It was a lot of fun!

I now have my toque.  It literally took me blood, sweat, and tears to earn it. I will probably be feeling withdrawal from the many culinary school induced highs and lows for a quite a while.  It was certainly more challenging than I expected, which has made it all the more impactful and significant an experience.  Above all it has truly been a dream come true.

Now Certified Classicaly Trained

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