Cooking our way through three exams
Nina, Nastia and I agreed to meet at Starbucks for lunch on Monday to do some last-minute reviewing before our wine exam. When Nina arrived, we could tell right away from her greenish pallor and swollen eyes that most of the studying she had done the previous night had taken the form of drinking wine rather than reading about it. She described a long evening of gaiety at Cave de L'Os a Moelle, which had concluded at 3 A.M. and left her sick as a dog that morning. The mere thought of the wine tasting component of our test was enough to send her galloping back to the bathroom.
Somehow we got through the test, nervously muttering under our breath about terroir and cru as we plodded through the multiple-choice questions and a pairing section. Afterwards we all went home to review one last time for our individual exams the following day.
The Individual Exam
This exam had the same format as our previous ones; we each chose an unmarked envelope telling us which three dishes we would be responsible for from the nine possible options we had studied. I just prayed I wouldn't get the Sisteron lamb fillet in puff pastry or the Napoleon. Nobody wanted the lamb; without a meat thermometer, it's so difficult to judge the interior doneness of the meat when it's cloaked in all that decorative crust that it basically just has to be your best guess.
I drew my card. Lemongrass crab cakes, brill fillet with zucchini and pesto sauce, and the dreaded Napoleon. I groaned so loudly that the pastry chef stuck his head in the library, wondering whether someone needed an ambulance. Nina drew the lamb.
Maybe the third time is a charm, because our final exam went well for all of us. We finished at least half an hour early, I didn't cut my hand open or burn my vegetables, and we each had enough time to work on our presentation before sending our plates to be judged.
Of course, even if I had an extra hour to plate my food, it would still look like a chimp assembled it. And perhaps if I hadn't yawned my way through our table decorating classes, I would have noticed that the plate on which I chose to present my main dish was actually intended for an appetizer. Oops. The judges also complained that I filled each of my plates with too much food, something they laughed off as "American". Sure, fine, I don't know when to quit, whatever. It was more important to me that they thought that my food tasted good, and they did. They said my crab cakes were moist, my fish was cooked well and my Napoleon was simple and elegant. Phew.
Nina and Nastia received similar positive reviews, and the judges concluded by saying that they hadn't seen such a successful final exam from a group of students in years. We were really pleased.
The Group Basket Exam
Our final test took the form of a group exam, in which we were expected to work together to design a complete menu around a list of ingredients supplied by the school. We had been thinking about this for at least a week, developing a theme and a floral/table design, not to mention inventing four courses and finding wines to match. Additionally, we were expected to somehow incorporate elements from each of our native countries into the menu: Japan, Russia, Switzerland and of course the United States.
We decided that our theme would be the Four Elements, since there were four countries and four courses. Here was our menu:
Amuse-bouche: Pumpkin soup with Espelette pepper cream and black bread crisps (fire)
Entree: Scallop carpaccio with pomegranate lime vinaigrette and nori/leek salad (water)
Main dish: Guinea hen cooked en cocotte with wild mushrooms, yellow wine and seasonal vegetables, served with sauteed cabbage and roasted herbed potatoes (air)
Dessert: Macha tiramisu, green tea ice cream and caramelized satsumas (earth)
Coffee and toasted white sesame truffles
I thought a lot about ways to incorporate American food into our menu, and I think I came up with some good ideas, but in the end the only country really strongly represented was Japan. Luckily none of the judges seemed to notice or care.
By the time all the duties got divvied up, I was left with the one responsibility I absolutely did not want to shoulder: the main course. But somehow there was nobody left to do it (read: nobody else dumb enough to accept the responsibility of doing it), so there I was on Wednesday morning, staring at several boxes of wild mushrooms that needed to be cleaned, trimmed and sauteed, three guinea hens that had to be portioned out, and a pile of potatoes, cabbage, bacon, baby carrots, garlic, turnips and tiny onions that all needed to be prepped before any of it could be cooked. I had two hours before it all needed to get on the stove and in the oven.
Nastia promised me she would back me up after she finished setting up the dining room, making the flower arrangements and so forth. I figured she'd be back in about forty-five minutes. Stick some flowers in a pot, lay out the napkins and then nip back into the kitchen to help me start chopping the feet off the hens. But, you see, even after four months of living in France, I still didn't appreciate the enormous and crucial role that aesthetics play in the success of a dining experience here. Two hours had come and gone, and Nastia was still being held hostage in the library with my instructor, who was rethinking her floral arrangements and color schemes, because hey, he had his own reputation to worry about when the highly decorated chefs of the Ritz and the hotel administrators sat down to eat his students' lunch.
And I was growing slightly frantic. Nothing had touched the stove yet and those hens needed to simmer at least an hour to let their lovely juices mingle with the wine, the garlic and the vegetables. By the time Nastia returned to the kitchen, I had morphed into a terse kitchen bitch who was fearfully anticipating being saddled with the blame when our main course was served half an hour behind schedule.
"It's going to be fine," she soothed, as I put her to work sauteing mushrooms and chopping herbs for the potatoes.
I tried to pretend like I was one of those Cool People who doesn't freak out under pressure but just takes the specter of culinary failure in stride by working harder and more efficiently. I fooled nobody.
"Yeah, you're right. It will be great. It will come out wonderfully ONCE WE JUST GET THESE BIRDS IN THE OVEN!" I say, my voice rising to a barely-concealed shriek. Pathetic, I am.
But she was correct as usual. It all came out well. Nastia had created a masterpiece of a table in our school's little library, equal parts classic French snooty beauty and tranquil Zen calm. Nina dished up a huge vat of spicy pumpkin soup and delicate rounds of translucent scallops dotted with scarlet dressing and pomegranate seeds. The cocotte was, if I do say so myself, lovely: moist, rich, earthy, hearty. And the dessert was remarkable. Our classmates Yukari and Mana put their heart and soul into it and presented a beautiful platter filled with the delicate flavors of Japan.
Sure, the judges had some criticisms, but I think the fact that we managed to pull off our menu without any mishaps and serve it on-time in a beautiful setting was more than enough to satisfy all of us.
After everything was cleaned up, we all celebrated by heading to our favorite cafe down the street for a round of nice frosty beers. And then I celebrated further that night by plopping down on my sofa with more beer and popcorn and watching movies. It felt divine!