You guys, I’m three weeks away from the end of my first quarter of culinary school. I have A’s in both classes, which is good, and I’m all registered for my next quarter classes.
But, before I get there, I have to pass my very first Practical Exam. Over the course of two nights, I will need to complete the following menus:
Chicken Breast Chardonnay
Rice Pilaf and Broccoli Hollandaise
Soup: Cream of Mushroom Soup
Coq au vin
Chateau Potatoes and Glazed Carrots
…and demonstrate my proficiency with the following knife skills:
Battonet carrots – 1 cup
Small dice carrots – ½ cup
Tourne potato – 8 each (These little fuckers, pardon the language, are my Arch Nemesis)
Concasse, roma tomatoes – 2 each
Small dice – 1 medium onion
Finely chopped parsley – 1/4 cup (1/2 bunch)
Quartered mushrooms – 1 cup
Orange Supreme – 1 orange
Minced garlic – 1 tablespoon
Over the past two nights, we’ve had a practice run at the practical. 20 individuals producing each and every one of those dishes with a total of seven ovens and 42 gas burners. We started working at 630 pm, with the goal of having everything hot, cooked, and plated beautifully by 930pm.
Rather than explain all the recipes to you, or show you pictures of my coq au vin, I thought I’d take this opportunity to walk you all through the horror, fear, adrenaline, chaos, and nearly complete loss of the most basic mental faculties that was my first practice practical. Warning, I actually do cuss like a sailor so there will be
some a lot of grown up words in here.
5:45pm – Get to class early. Sharpen knives to the point that you are at least 75% certain to slice off an important appendage. Start hoarding all the good equipment. Find the one pot that has a lid that fits, the one cutting board that is actually large enough to slice up 12 ounces of mushrooms and mince four tablespoons of parsley without getting bits of mushroom stem and parsley dust all over the place (including in your hair, so that people mistake you for a woodland creature). Get your pots on the stove. Get some water boiling. Get some stock simmering. Make it very clear with meaningful looks and strategic pot/pan placement that, yes, you WILL need all three burners. Eff off, interloper! Grab ALL the good mis en place containers. ALL of them. You can always put some back later, but this is fucking war. Grab that little mesh strainer, too. No way you’re gonna haul around the giant china cap for such a small amount of veg.
5:55pm – That nice lady with the supply cart comes with all the ingredients for tonight’s dishes. Immediately, and without hesitation, rush that cart like it’s the last $50 X Box on Black Friday, and find the most perfect potato in the box. Seriously. You’re going to have to get 8 goddamn tournes out of that thing, and even the smallest little oddly shaped lump or bump or skinny end will put you in a world of hurt. Next, go for the wine. Resist temptation to drink the entire quart, and just measure out the 4 oz called for in the recipe. Before anyone remembers to look for it, grab the bacon and peel off four slices. Yes, that’s more than the 1 oz you need for the recipe, but you’re already thinking about presentation and a couple of crispy, beautiful pieces of bacon on top of that coq au van could make all the difference. No matter how loudly anyone (including Chef) hollers about needing more bacon, pretend you have gone temporarily deaf and just keep working. As long as they don’t examine your meez too closely, you will get out of this with all that bacon.
6:05pm – Chef starts his pep talk for the night. He looks as nervous as everyone else. It’s nice that he really wants everyone to do well, but your brain drifts back to ALL THAT VEG YOU HAVE TO PREP and you honestly wish he’d just shhhhhhhhh. He finally releases the hounds and you immediately pre-heat your oven and then start on those mother effing tournes. Take way too much time cleaning up all those asshole little facets and hesitation marks and drop them in water. Grab your orange and supreme that little shit to within an inch of its life. No pith, no pith, no pith, you repeat to yourself. You resent even having to do this because it doesn’t go into any of tonight’s recipes. Now your kitchen OCD is kicking in and you’re checking and double checking and triple checking and getting orange juice fucking everywhere. Work clean! Mop up the juice, flip your cutting board over, and get to work on the mushrooms. You need 4 oz quartered for the entree, and another 12 oz destemmed and sliced for the soup. Wipe down your board again, and get to the parsley. Minced, rinsed, and set on a paper plate to dry. Wipe the board down between each veg. Every single thing that does not require heat needs to be ready before you walk over to the stove, but work fast, because you have about an hour, tops, to get it all done, and in your peripheral you can already see people crowding around your burners. You are torn between wanting to walk over and just start anything cooking simply to guard your territory, and finishing this fucking meez set up, and you can already feel the insanity creeping in. It’s too early for crazy eyes, so you start singing Journey’s Greatest Hits to yourself to stay calm and focused and just get this prep done. Just a small town girl…
7:15pm- You’re already 10 minutes behind schedule. You still have your burners, but you can’t get to them because of all the giants in the way. Was everyone always this tall? Time to use your kitchen voice. Meaningfully, “BEHIND YOU!” and the sea of bodies parts so you can get the butter, onions, and mushroom stems in a pot. The soup will take the longest, so that’s what you’re starting first. You give all that stuff maybe 5 minutes to sweat, and then dump in the hot stock, turn the heat to a simmer, threaten the lives of those around you for even thinking about adjusting the heat or moving your pot even a millimeter. Slap the lid down and check the clock. It’ll simmer for 20 minutes. That gives you time to par-cook and shock your tournes and carrots, give the pearl onions a quick dunk so you can peel them, and start searing off the chicken for the entree.
8:15pm- Mother fucker. Where did the goddamn night go? Where did your burners go? Why is that guy asking you all these fucking questions? Go read your recipe, slacker! Ain’t nobody got time for your lack of preparation. You feel your eyeballs going crazy. They’re twitching this way and that as you mentally start mourning all the shit you don’t think you’re gonna get on the plate because THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS STOLE YOUR GODDAMN BURNERS. *ahem*
9:00pm- You’re in the bargaining stage. You’re bargaining with the clock, with the oven, with the burner, with the pan, with God (and you’re athiest, but we’re in the mothereffing foxhole, people!), and with Chef (only in your head) that he doesn’t notice you’re just getting the coq au vin into the oven. Technically, you’re right on time, but plate up is 930pm, which will give you maybe, if you’re lucky, five minutes to execute this beautiful presentation you have in your head. Son of a bitch, why is it so flipping hot in here? Am I in hell? I must be in hell. I died, and I went to hell for sticking that pack of gum down my pants at the grocery store when I was six. Fight the waves of dizziness. Don’t just stand there! Get the potatoes in a pan! Any pan, anywhere!
9:25pm- You had to brown your potatoes on a back burner in the corner, reaching over a sizzling pan of someone’s chicken for the first 10 minutes, which means you have tiny little red burn splotches all the way up your right forearm and a line of brown grease across the front of your apron. You pray to The Universe, God, and the unnamed Kitchen Dieties that the wine sauce in the coq au vin has reduced. As you open the oven, you realize the fan isn’t blowing. You look over at the switch, and see that someone turned off the oven. TURNED IT OFF! You turn around to find your tablemate giving you the guiltiest side eye in the history of facial expressions, “Sorry! I didn’t realize anything was still in there. I just turned it off five minutes ago. You should be fine.” You lose the ability to speak. Understand that he has no real concept of time at this point and know that “five minutes” could mean five minutes, or 15 minutes. Check the sauce. It’s still soup. FUCK. You’ve now moved onto a combination of anger and denial. Slap the pot down on a burner, pull the chicken pieces out, and turn the heat to jet engine, praying that in the time it takes to get everything else plated it’s reduced enough to look like you meant to do that all along. Check for seasoning, throw in some salt, and mumble incoherently. Guttural noises start low in your throat and forward motion propels you toward… but then no… past him to grab a dinner plate and a soup bowl. You clear all the crap off your quarter of the table, put down towels so the metal prep tables don’t suck all the heat out of your food before you can plate it, and turn on a dime to go get some soup in the bowl and make a deal with Satan for the fate of your sauce.
9:35pm- Why won’t the chicken leg stand up?!?!? It stood up in the picture you saw on Pinterest. How do they do that? What planet is this? Where’s Chef? Where’s my blankie?
945pm- Chef walks over to the table as you’re wiping the final spot from the edge of the plate. You literally hold your breath the entire time he’s talking. “Plating looks nice,” before he demolishes your careful arrangement to check the doneness of the chicken. You honestly have no clue what he’s going to find. “Looks good. Cooked through. Could use a little more color. Sauce is just a little loose, but I wouldn’t ding you for it. (Satan now owns my soul) Potatoes are pretty good, but you need color on both sides. Don’t forget to salt the water. Carrots are good; glaze is nice. Soup is a little watery, but the flavors are there. Not bad.” Just like that, like it never even happened, he’s gone.
950pm- All that adrenaline starts to drain away and you realize you didn’t totally fuck it up. You can’t remember a single thing you did for the entire night (except you really have to go punch that one guy in the throat for the oven thing) but somehow, magically, the food got on the plate and it tasted like Things You Would Put In Your Body Without Regret. You stand very still for five whole minutes, feeling all at once very tired, very grateful, and a little worried about the eternal damnation of your soul. And then, of course, the fog clears and you remember you don’t believe in that stuff, but you do believe in the food on the plate, and the food is good.