Sunday, December 21, 2008

With Honors

It has taken me a little while to write about graduation day – a day that I won’t soon forget. When school finished that week, I had some foot surgery that I’ve been putting off. Standing in the kitchen for the past nine months has exacerbated pain in my feet, specifically my toes. Although I had a pair of fantastic Dansko Euro clogs to wear at night, it was during the day that my feet would feel crunched wearing dress shoes. So, I needed to have my toes fixed.

I went back to work full time at Wildlife Trust – in the evening time when I would find myself home at 6:30 pm I would experience an overwhelming sense of loss, not being in the school’s kitchen was so odd to me. I was meant to be there, I thought to myself, it’s 6:30 pm I should be prepping for service. It was a strange transition, leaving the professional kitchen made me long for it even more. Troubling!

But back to graduation day, mind you, that was the day after our food final. We assembled at school in the late afternoon and had our class picture taken with our tall chef’s hats. It was amazing to see everyone dressed in chef whites and tall toque.

Family and friends assembled in the culinary theater waiting for us to appear. Happily my mom, brother and two sisters were present for the ceremony. It meant a lot to me that they were there.

The soon-to-be graduates sat in the front row of the theater and our Chefs from different Levels stood up front. Chef Candy welcomed everyone and spoke about the accomplishment in graduating from the FCI. Chef Candy introduced our Chef-Instructors and one-by-one they spoke and gave us sage advice.

Chef Candy asked us to line up so we could officially receive our diploma and toque. Once called you were met with Chef Phil, our Level VI Chef who presented the diploma and then each of us would go down the line to thank our other Chefs including, Chef Nic, Chef Veronica, Chef Janet, Chef Laura, Chef Wanda, Chef Candy and finally Chef Marc.

With diploma in hand and toque proudly perched on my head, I went through the line and thanked all my Chefs before I headed back to my seat. Next, the presentation of awards.

Two of my fellow students received awards for never missing a class – unfortunately travel plans had me out of the kitchen twice. Awards for honor students was next on the agenda, Marcela, Michal, Sasi and I were called up to receive an FCI pin to affix to our jacket signifying that the four of us graduated with honors. I was thrilled to have the privilege to graduate with honors and stand up there with my fellow students. A round of applause and we were ready to head back to our seats when the Director of Student Affairs asked me to stay up on the dais.

A little bewildered, I didn’t know what to quite expect but I could see a Chef’s knife on the granite table in front of us. The Director went on to present me with the Chef’s knife inscribed with “Graduated Top of the Class” it was an emotional moment for me. The past nine months I’ve worked hard to excel, become better at my craft and to prove to myself that I could do it. Before I received the knife I was asked to make a speech. I could see my family in the audience, my fellow students in front of me and I grabbed for the appropriate words.

In short I said something like, I wanted to thank my family and fellow students for making this journey so incredible. Each of them have enriched my life in a different way, and I am grateful for that. I remarked that going to culinary school has been a long-time dream and at the age of 39 it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Lastly, I said that the wonderful thing about food is that it tells a story and has a rich history and all I could ask my fellow graduates was to continue telling their story.

It has been an incredible nine months of my life, as for my next move, I’m not sure yet. What I do know is I will never approach food and cooking the same way ever again and for that I’m proud.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Grande Finale

Everything hinges on this one exam – walking into school I am apprehensive about the dishes I will have to cook for my final. Once we’re all settled in we take a written exam and are tested on the ingredients and procedure for a dish we’ve prepared over the past few weeks in the restaurant. I’m hoping we will be tested on the Porcini-flavored Consommé with Seared Squab and Butternut Squash since it is seared into memory.

Chef Phil hands out the exam and we have 20 minutes to complete it. I use every minute of the time allotted to describe all the details (it was the consommé!) of the dish and I complete the exam feeling good about it. Next the “fun” part – each of us takes a piece of paper with a corresponding letter/number combination from a stainless steel bowl that is passed around – here’s where our fate lies! The numbers correspond to the dishes we will have to make and present to the judges.

Out of all the combinations, no one wants the cavatelli and duck since those dishes are the most labor intensive. I grab my number and hope for the best…but luck was not on my side and I was stuck making the dreaded two dishes. I took a deep breath and headed into the kitchen to start what I knew was going to be a stressful and long night of cooking.

Getting set up I knew I had to make the pasta dough first as it needs to rest for at least 30 minutes. I hate making dough of any kind, it never comes out right – dough is my nemesis! As I kneaded the floury mess I gauged how much water to add all the while thinking, I gotta get this right. After about 15 – 20 minutes of kneading Chef came by and checked out my dough and gave me the eye letting me know it looked done. My gut said to add more water but I didn’t and thought the consistency was alright with Chef then it should be fine.

Next I tackle the crustacean broth cleaning the lobster and crab bodies and chopping the mirepoix to get the mixture on the stove so it could simmer for an hour. This broth is served with the cavatelli along with crabmeat, sea urchin, scallions and seasoned breadcrumbs.

After that the spicy duck broth is my next recipe to tackle then time to make the pasta. I took my dough out and started to shape it in long strips. At the hand-cranked pasta machine my worst fear was once again realized. The dough was a little dry and the machine was not curling the pasta into the familiar cavatelli shape. I’d crank out 4 or 5 pieces of dough and then 1 or 2 salvageable cavatellis would emerge. I made the best cavatelli I could knowing that the pasta was not perfect but hopefully passable.

With my first dish only about 20 minutes away from being plated I raced to cook the pasta, make the seasoned breadcrumbs, pick through the crabmeat, strain the crustacean broth and prepare any last minute garnish. I cooked the fresh pasta probably a minute too much – now two strikes against the pasta. I seasoned, tasted and plated thinking the flavors were there. At 8:57 pm I raced my four exact dishes of cavatelli down the hallway to the judges hoping for the best.

With one dish out of the way a wave of relief washed over me but that was only for a mere moment. Chef came into the kitchen and told me there was a hair in my pasta! I was so aggravated that I didn’t see it and I know it wasn’t mine. With that piece of news I refocused to get back on track for my next course to go out – Braised Duck Leg and Seared Breast in a Spicy Broth. I had 45 minutes to execute the final four dishes for the judges. My spicy broth was strained and degreased, the legs were seared and braised, the duck breast was cooking in the circulator and my focus was on the garnish of broccoli rabe, ham, cilantro, mushrooms and carrots. With time winding down I plated my four duck plates without a moment to spare. Racing down the hallway to judges table I handed over my tray of food and my adrenaline wave crashed.

It was over…my nine months comes down to this…three well-respected industry judges will taste all the food I’ve prepared and at the end of the night give me my final critique in front of my peers. Except for the hair incident, and the pasta debacle I felt good about everything. Immediately, I knew what I could have done better and would probably be criticized on.

I trudged back to the kitchen to clean up, hug some of my fellow students and drink some water. At this point in the night, none of us have eaten or taken even a bathroom break. Chef gave us some time to compose ourselves and some students still had dishes to get out the door. I had to brace myself for the last part of the evening I felt my cooking was mediocre at best and that I could have done so much better. You can imagine I am highly critical of my own food and even worse when it comes to dining out. I guess it comes with the territory – we are trained to cook, to taste, to judge and be consciously critical about what is presented on the dish.

Split into two groups, we marched into the judges’ room, meeting our jury for the very first time. On my panel, we had a senior chef from the venerated Lutèce Restaurant - the famed French restaurant in Manhattan that operated for more than 30 years before closing in 2004. The two other senior chefs were from Saks 5th Avenue and the Food Network.

One by one, they reviewed each dish we presented, critiquing every minute detail: flavor, temperature, presentation, and balance. I faired better than I expected and took their advice to heart as I hung on every word. Sitting there I reviewed the night’s play-by-play and felt I did the best I could – having never lost my cool throughout the stress was by far one of the things I could be proudest of.

The night drew to a close with a round of applause, Marcela turned to me with a look of shock on her face and said, “it’s over.”