There’s just a little bit over a week left in Level 6 at the International Culinary Center. Actually, I have just two more classes, and then the last day is when we take our final exam. In Level 5, we started working in the kitchen at L’Ecole, the restaurant run by the school, preparing meals paid for and eaten by the general public. I’ve fumbled quite a bit in both of these levels, but I’ve also learned a tremendous amount, and not just about restaurant cooking.
Before the beginning of this level (as with Level 5) we were given pages of recipes that we’d be making during the class. We were also given photos of what each of the completed dishes should look like before they are delivered to the tables. As I mentioned in my previous post, each plate is given a once-over by our supervising chef before it leaves the kitchen. The expediting chef (who relays orders from the waitstaff to the cooks) also double-checks them and wipes them clean of any stray sauce stains before they head out to the dining room. To say there’s a little bit of pressure, even for us a students, to get it exactly perfect would be understating it just a little.
There’s the additional component for us in Level 6, as we rotate through the different stations as part of our lessons, that these recipes are the ones that we’ll be called upon to reproduce in our final exam at the end of the level. Next week, we’ll be drawing slips of paper to see which two of the eight dishes that we’ve been making these past few weeks will be the ones that we have to prepare as we’ve been taught to do and to present before a panel of judges, who are chefs and will be our new peers in the culinary industry. So the learning process at this stage is even more intense. It is about honing technique and really absorbing all the information from our previous classes as well as the tips the instructors have been trying to instill in us as a culinary second nature.
This course level, I started off in Garde Manager (appetizers) and worked my way around through Poissonier (fish), Saucier (meat), and am finishing up in Patissier (pastry), which was were I started out in Level 5. At each stage I feel like I’m really getting better with some aspects of this work, but I’m definitely still messing up on others. Getting my speed up in this environment is still difficult for me. I feel like (and I’m sure my instructors would concur) that I still second-guess my abilities and over-think the process. I’ve been told that with time and with more experience working in kitchens this gets better.
I’m still in awe of how much goes into working in a restaurant kitchen: the drive, the stamina, the reflexes, the massive expenditure of energy. I keep being reminded of how everyone who has been in the industry for a while talks about how this work is “really a young person’s job.” Seeing my much-younger classmates (truly, as most were born after I’d finished college) seemingly breeze through prep tasks and service without so much as breaking a sweat or becoming flustered, ever, I can’t help but agree with that assessment. I watch our chef-instructors who just seem to handle pulling these dishes together as though it was just like breathing. Sometimes, I feel more like a guppy gasping for air, as I work alongside them and some of my more talented classmates.
At the same time, this experience, as part of the structure of a larger culinary education program, does help to tie together a lot of the various aspects of what we’ve been doing these past few months. The dishes that we’ve been making build upon lessons that we had as far back as the beginning of the program. The overall concepts and techniques and standards are reinforced every night we are in the kitchen. My hope, now, is that I can remember all of what I’ve learned and reproduce these dishes to the standard to pass my final exam.