Saying that this past week was high-pressure would be a massive understatement. Our midterms ate up 80% of the week!
- Monday we knocked skulls with stovemates to review recipes (from memory) for all of the possible foods that we’d have to make for our practical exams (also from memory!), and then make them.
- Tuesday was a very thorough 12-page written exam review of fundamental things that we’ve learned from day 1 onward.
- Wednesday was the intensive 2-hour practical exam where we would be assigned a list of items to cook and knife cuts to produce.
- Thursday was a review of our written exams plus an opportunity to make up marks and improve our scores (because almost everybody has a rough go at midterms!).
- Friday was a regular class, big whoosh of relief, where we made brunch items all day. I love breakfast foods almost as much as desserts!
We had one day off earlier this month, but I used it to go on a work observation. Any “free” time in between our exams felt strange, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Before our program began, I understood that there would be no days off between work and class, and am doing my best not to burn out, but it just seemed really funny, wringing my hands for a second and thinking about how there was nothing that had to be done.
Learning as a culinary student is very much like being a little baguette. The dough proofs (grows), gets punched down, is stretch stretch strehhhhtched out, then grows some more, gets cut a bunch of times, is subjected to heat, and ta-da! Something wonderful. Potentially. It’s up to the dough: Does it want to rise?
I spent a lot of time studying and practicing how to make dishes, and probably should have spent a little more time practicing knife cuts, but was more concerned about blanking on ingredients or forgetting important steps that would have cost a lot more, marks-wise, than being off by a millimeter or two. Any classmates who cranked out perfect julienne and knocked their required recipes out of the park deserve some major high-fives.
Chef Tony often comments on our class’s level of focus. Of course, as in any group, there is a relative amount of jokery, but we seem like a pretty sharp bunch, and and in fact achieved the highest practical score in the history of Northwest. I kicked myself for losing a few points due to finishing late, but am very happy with my overall marks for skill/flavour/etc. I’m confident in knowing what to do and how to make things, and will just have to speed up and kick ass at the final exam.
I went on another work observation, this time with Market at the Shangri-La hotel, or The Shang, as it’s known by students. This was an interesting one, as it was on the last Friday night of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. I thought it might be a bad idea of Olympic-sized proportions to overextend myself at the end of an exhausting week, but curiosity got the better of me, as my classmate Rene mentioned that I would probably love how they are very systems-oriented and super Foodsafe. So off I went, to see how a reputedly great kitchen handles a mad rush!
Right away, I was welcomed by the sous chef, who said that he was happy to bring on anybody from our school of “rock stars”, as an awesome classmate (who had a lot of experience working in restaurants and catering) had wowed them the night before, so there were mighty big kitchen clogs to fill, and it was finally my turn to have a tough act to follow.
A lot of people don’t like vegetables because they’re boring or cooked poorly, so I enjoy learning new ways of prepping them and thinking of fun ideas. I was lucky and got to work with a lot of my favorites, but went a little too quickly with brussels sprouts on a mandoline and nicked my thumb, because my hand slipped.
If you’re even thinking about stepping into a kitchen, do yourself a favour and read Kitchen Confidential. I skimmed through it, and remember how Anthony Bourdain was humiliated at one of his early jobs, so I never go on a work observation without band-aids and finger cots (tiny finger condoms). Standing with a fistful of paper towels stopping the blood flow in one elevated hand, while the other hand searched my apron for supplies, I couldn’t help but think of how if this happened clumsily on a TV show I probably would have laughed, so I couldn’t be too mad about it.
Cuts and burns are an annoying reality of this industry, even if you’re careful, so just bite your lip to keep from unleashing a bunch of curses while taking care of medical business, but if it’s really bad, don’t bite your lip because you’ll probably need to yell for help. I bled through my band-aids later and had to change them and keep a latex glove on my right hand, but was pretty quick and quiet (like a first-aid ninja!) so this actually went unnoticed until the end of the night.
I observed common themes that ran through every department of the hotel and kitchen, and liked their attention to detail, especially things like colour-coded cutting boards and day-of-the-week-stickers. The staff were very helpful, friendly, positive, and communicate well to work together efficiently. Oh, and the food was amazing.
Now that we’re halfway through the program, things are supposed to get easier, but we’ve been warned about a tendency for students to slack off around this point. I have to find ways to relax when not at school or work to stay fired up and well-rested, but plan to keep kicking doors in (as my trainer says) and working my butt off. I approached Northwest and applied with the intention of doing well, and am pouring all of my energy into it. I wanted to be able to prove to myself that I could get through this, and as an additional payoff, I feel as though burying myself in all of this work and learning has sped up the healing process. Until graduation, good marks and happily-fed company are my victories.
My team partner this past week was a student who moved here from China. She’s super-sweet, a very keen and detailed learner, and was a pleasure to work with for the 2 days that we actually got to share. With the end of midterms and a new week beginning, I’m ready to go.