As some of my readers know, I completed the Diploma of Cuisine at the Paris Le Cordon Bleu School. That was one year ago and the glitz of the graduation ceremony and the after-party has long worn off. However, every once in awhile I think back to the final practical exam I had to do in order to graduate, remembering the hard work and stress.
For the exam, we were given a list of ingredients required to design a verrine appetizer and a main course with various side dishes. We were then given 4 hours to prepare and execute our dishes in a high intensity atmosphere- for every minute you went over the 4 hours, you were docked 1 point! Adding to the stress was the knowledge that Le Cordon Bleu had failed 9 students at the Paris school the previous semester and 7 students the semester before that. Prior to the exam, I would wake up several times in the middle of the night wondering if I would pass or not- “What was someone MY AGE doing in Paris going through all that stress? Shouldn’t I be home pottering in the garden or perhaps knitting some booties?”
Well, here is my story.
The Ateliers (Workshops)
In order to help prepare us for the final exam, the Cordon Bleu school held two practice workshops (ateliers) several weeks before the exam. For the first atelier, we were required to prepare an appetizer and main course using essential ingredients of sea bream, jumbo shrimp, chicken, avocado and rock melon (as well as 10 other ingredients). The main challenge was to design a dish where all the ingredients fit together, rather than looking like a hodgepodge.
I decided to save the chicken for my main course and use the sea bream and jumbo shrimp for the appetizer. I first filleted the fish, poached it, then placed it inside a ring mold lined on the outside with thinly sliced zucchini pieces. I also placed several drops of coriander (cilantro) coulis around the rock melon to enhance the flavour- I normally don’t like rock melon but this coulis actually made the melon taste good! I also made a smear of white beurre blanc sauce to go on the plate.
I sweated for 5 hours in this workshop without a break and was pretty satisfied with my dishes, but unfortunately the chef cut my work down in about 60 seconds flat.
The Chef’s Verdict:
- use an odd-number of rock melon pieces (3 pieces) instead of even-numbered 4 pieces
- he didn’t like the coulis
- don’t use the beurre blanc sauce, it’s not necessary for the plate
- the zucchini ring stuffed with the sea bream looked ‘too heavy’ on the plate; being an appetizer, it should be smaller with fewer elements on the plate
- the thin line of brunoise vegetables on the plate was the only thing he liked!
He was equally dismissive of my main course dish with the stuffed chicken breasts, refusing to even taste my red pepper sabayon sauce! Oh well, I thought, maybe I’ll do better at the next atelier scheduled for two weeks later.
The second atelier workshop didn’t go any better, with the chef telling me several times that I was “failing” since I wasn’t keeping my work station clean enough. This workshop required using sardines as one of the main ingredients, so I decided to copy a recipe that was presented to us previously in the Intermediate Cuisine class last semester. Certainly he couldn’t say anything negative about my dish now?
The chef’s verdict: “Your dish looks like something a 5-year-old could have done!” This chef also told me the following week that I was “too old to do modern plating.” This was during a practical class where I was struggling to plate up a veal dish- finally I just placed everything on the plate and hoped for the best. That he thought I was trying to do “modern plating” was laughable! Whatever happened to the concept of “positive re-enforcement” in the classroom? Anyway, with a lot of negativity surrounding me, I was seriously starting to doubt whether I would survive the upcoming 4-hour superior cuisine exam!
Finally, a breath of fresh air appeared in the form of Chef Marc Vaca! We were now given the list of principal ingredients for our final exam: golden chanterelle mushrooms, a flat fish turbot and shrimp were to be used (along with other ingredients) to design and execute a verrine appetizer and main course (to be plated up and duplicated on four separate plates). We were strongly advised to first discuss our proposed exam dishes with a chef, to ensure we were on track. I asked Chef Vaca to be my adviser and he spent over an hour one evening with me discussing my proposed dishes. He was very enthusiastic, approving of some of my ideas and bouncing off new ones- it was also fascinating listening to him talk about his own past experience with chef competitions. The practice run-through of our final exam was coming up in a few days and I was now starting to feel a bit more confident.
The practice run-through
This practice run-through allowed us to prepare our dishes under exam conditions before the “final day” arrived. My confidence took a nose-dive when I found it took me 5 hours to prepare my dishes instead of the required 4 hours! As one chef said, “if you are late more than ten minutes, then you may as just well go home because you’ll fail!” With only 3 days to go before the final exam, I know I had to do some serious practicing to try and get my routine down to 4 hours. That night, I lay awake with knots in my stomach, wondering how I could shave off one whole hour from my exam.
The next day, I went out and bought all the ingredients to practice my exam run-through at home, including a 70 euro ($100) turbot fish. I tried to think of a mantra that would inspire me during the exam and I came up with a line from a Seinfeld show: “You can do it, and you will do it!” This was the line from Elaine’s psychiatrist, Dr Reston, when he tried to convince her to call Kramer to verify that Kramer was really her boyfriend.
Line from Seinfeld: “You can, and you will!”
When I went through the practice run-through at home, I tried to fillet the turbot in less than 10 minutes, but I just couldn’t mange it, it was such a big fish to handle- but not to worry- I still had 3 hours and 50 minutes left to finish up everything. Armed with my mantra of “You can and you will!” and a fierce determination to finish on time, I was able to finish my run-through in 3 hours and 45 minutes- leaving me enough time to finish and plate up nicely! What a relief and there were no knots in my stomach that night!
Here is a picture of the verrine appetizer that I did for the exam, consisting of garlic mousse on top of marinated shrimp and artichoke hearts, set in a tomato base.
The Day of the Final Exam
The day of the final exam finally arrived- the school scheduled the students to start their exams spaced ten minutes apart- I was scheduled to start in the third slot starting at 8:30 am. I was afraid that the ‘mean chef’ would be supervising the exam (the one who told me I was failing and that I was ‘too old’ to do modern plating). When I entered the room, I was relieved to see that Chef Vaca would be supervising.
During the exam, everything went reasonably smoothly- no sauces were burned, no fish were ruined due to bad filleting techniques. First off the bat was to get the beets soaking in a vinegar solution in order to pickle them, then to fillet the turbot and prepare a sauce using the bones of the fish, and to roast a whole head of garlic in order to make the garlic mousse (but watch out, the garlic is very hot when trying to handle it). Every few minutes, I said my mantra to myself, “You can, and you will!”
As the four hours was almost up, I found I was racing against time: I would not be able to finish in time to plate up nicely- it would be a dash to just get everything on the four plates. Five minutes before I had to finish, I started to dish up my 4 verrines before turning to my main dishes. Something inspiring started to happen here. A rallying cry came from one of the other students who had just finished her exam, “Come on Fran, you can do it, hurry up!” I was amazed that another student was trying to encourage me. Then another amazing thing happened, the assistant who was assigned to help out and to deliver the finished dishes to the judges also started to yell, “Come on, you can do it!” She even rushed over to my station and helped me to plate up some of my verrines for me. I eventually got everything plated up right on the nose of four hours- not a second to spare. However, I was a little disappointed that I had to leave off a few of the decorative elements on my plates and that I couldn’t do my plating satisfactorily.
After I started to clean up my station in order to leave, I heard the chef yell to a student, “Vous êtes onze minutes en retard!” (you are 11 minutes late!). I felt sorry for him but I later found out that he passed his exam. I wasn’t sure if I had passed or not and I would have to wait 5 days to find out- it turns out that I did pass!
Why have I written so much here about the final exam at the Cordon Bleu School? Perhaps it was to allow me a chance to whinge and to get some things off my chest. But another reason is to encourage you to try to succeed even when others try to discourage you with their negativity. Also to show that other people will willingly rally around you even when you were not expecting it! You can and you will!
Tell me dear reader, have you ever had an inspiring experience or had to overcome negativity from someone?
Chef Marc Vaca and me at the Paris Le Cordon Bleu graduation ceremony