Week 15 started off fast and never slowed down. The alarm clock on Sunday morning may as well have been a group of people clanging pots and pans at my bedside while yelling.
“It’s your final week! Get up! Have fun! Go, go, go!”
Our final practical exam lasted 4 days: On Sunday we prepped food for upcoming services, on Monday and Tuesday, friends/family/chefs/other guests were invited to lunch, and on Wednesday, friends/family/other guests were invited to dinner, and we were also to be judged by a panel of local guest chefs who would be watching, judging, and marking us in addition to dining at a table. It sounds more intimidating than it actually was, although the pressure level can go through the roof and it’s not easy to keep cool and level-headed at all times.
Have you ever had a day where you worked for so long, or worked so hard that you forgot to eat? Our teachers made sure that wouldn’t happen by plucking one team member from every stove to work at a banqueting station and get food ready for the class to eat during a quick pre-service lunch break, all from recipes that we’ve made before, with a good balance of healthy grains, vegetables, and even dessert! Yum. We were so spoiled.
It was nice to have a day to get ready before Monday, but on Monday, my turn to work on banquet prep, was also our first official service. Like everyone else at the stove with me (in addition to another student from each of our original stoves, who were pulled from cooking to be servers during meals), it was hard to watch from afar. We all were hoping for the best!
Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of all of the dishes that we served to guests. New modifications were made every day to push the dishes and make them a little better, and although it would have been nice to whip out the camera, it’s a bad idea when you’re in the middle of 5 orders and are being marked by your teachers and the guest chefs for accuracy, speed, attitude, and a slew of other important kitchen qualities.
In addition to the service, one person from each stove was the designated leader, or chef de partie, and one CDP from class would also be the chef de cuisine, who was also in charge of coordinating timing and plating with the other CDPs in class so all the dishes came out at the same time. Yowza!
Our team had some very strong dishes. Lots of spices, bright vegetables, lovely plating, and even cute canapés, that were served on the final night. My favourite canapé for the dinner actually started out as a joke. We were given a list of requirements that our menu had to meet, in addition to the original plates, and two of our team members thought it would be funny to get a few things done at once by making a charcuterie product into a bite-sized treat that included a tiny sausage, served on a beet chip. I even volunteered to make sauerkraut and Dijon mayo for it, and yay, it became a reality!
A few years ago I read a book that I can’t remember the name of. It was about a crazy family that included a daughter who buried herself in restaurant work, including making sauerkraut from scratch. At the time, I thought, “Wow, she’s crazy,” but now, knowing how easy and fun it is to pickle and preserve, I think, “Hmmm. I’m a little crazy. And that’s okay.”
The one thing that I did manage to snag a photo of, though, was the cheesecake from last week. We altered it by adding more ginger and cardamom, covering the entire surface with pear slices, glazing them with the poaching syrup, topping it with a quenelle of orange crème Chiboust (orange pastry cream folded into whipped cream), and serving it on a pool of vanilla caramel sauce, giving a nod to another teammate’s dessert while better complimenting the tartlet. The pastry dough and flavoured pear purée were portioned out ahead of time, but every day the tart shells had to be rolled out, cut, shaped, baked, cooled, filled with a freshly whipped cloud of dreamy cheese fluff, and the pear slices and to be poached, placed, and glazed, the orange cream had to be softened and folded, and mint leaves had to be picked and brushed with syrup. It was a high-maintenance dessert (sigh!!), but was very easy to plate at service time, leaving us elbow room to clean up or get ahead on the next day’s prep, and garnered generally happy reviews.
I was so happy to work on these, having felt slow and clumsy working with pastries and desserts before. My love for desserts clearly hadn’t extended to my hands (unless there was a fork nearby), until it was GO time and these had to be cranked out quickly and beautifully. The learning process amazes me, and about 8 tartlets in, I noticed my speed increasing. Can’t wait to make more! The recipe will be posted before summer is over.
Our judge was Chef Jason Lloyd from the Terminal City Club. We were expecting some harsh, industry-level criticism for our work, as the chefs were told not to look at this as a dinner from students, but to look at it as dinner served by their employees, with their reputation on the line. all right, so that part was a little intimidating.
He was so nice! Chef Jason had generally positive feedback for us, and delivered constructive criticism in a way that was polite, helpful, and friendly. His team at TCC is very lucky.
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Every Friday we cleaned something at the end of the day, like the stove burners, the hoods, or stainless steel shelving, and this is called Le Grande Nettoyage (The Big Cleanup), which I think would be a cool name for a gritty, urban French movie about hired assassins or a bank/casino heist gone wrong. What is Guy Ritchie working on right now? Anyway, Thursday was spent cleaning. The entire day. Scraping wood, scrubbing pots, wiping hoods, re-wrapping burner pipes, spraying down glass, throwing out food, and prepping food for our graduation reception on Friday.
On Friday we graduated, and I came in early with a few others to help finish the food, plating, and moving it to the venue a block away. I looked forward to a last opportunity to help out in class. We didn’t have to wear our hats, so while most people let their hair down, I took the opportunity to put my hair up, with a curly, fanned fauxhawk, peacock feather hairband, and sassy red lipstick.
There were speeches from each of the chefs, as well as from a valedictorian each from the Culinary and Pastry classes. Kevin, our valedictorian, spoke beautifully about how we cleaned any remaining traces of us away from the classroom, and that our success was in setting up the next term’s students well.
“You made everyone who spoke after you look bad,” I joked.
Grace and I even stuck around to help clean up after, back at the school, before heading to a party. She is going to be taking the pastry class next term, and it was hard for me to say goodbye to the school, even though I know it’s more of a “see you soon!” because we had an apprenticeship exam today and there are a few events to volunteer at in the next couple of weeks.
Our class of students was (and will continue to be!!) amazing. There were a lot of sharp, focused, smart, funny, kind, generous, sweet, creative, talented people who I am so lucky to know and to have worked with. Professional Culinary at Northwest is very intense and you learn a lot more about who you are. Some things you like, others, you don’t, and work hard to grow and practice improving.
The kitchen brigade system was invented by Auguste Escoffier, a former army chef. He basically got shit organized and turned the restaurant industry as a whole, into something viable, instead of a place for hotels to lose money. Giving your dish, your work, your heart, to your peers to judge, improve, and then finally re-construct without your guidance requires so much trust. It’s hard to give that away unless you believe that the people at your stove truly can be your brothers and sisters in arms. We all fought different battles, but the same war together.
As Bowes would put it, “The war on gluten rages on!”
My life is so different now than it was 4 months ago. I used to be a business manager in the fashion industry who people would come to see at appointments. I used to have a boyfriend. I used to have perfect skin and was allowed to smell like a grove of oranges in the summer! But I am no longer afraid of honing my knife wrongly on the steel. I do not fear cutting myself with a knife (I just get annoyed because it slows me down and stings like crazy!). I have the skills to move more confidently in the kitchen and make a dinner for my friends or a group of complete strangers whom I will never meet. I can teach other people how to cook and make sure that they’re having a fabulous time. I can sharpen my knives while watching DVDs or a CSI marathon.
Every class was spent fighting how I felt on day one, and I came out swinging. This school gave me the outlet and opportunity to go from nursing my wounds to celebrating a rip-roaring victory.
Most importantly, I have family, friends and teammates, old and new, who stuck by me through all of this. Our graduation ceremony acknowledged our hard work and determination, but the unsung heroes are our support networks. So to everybody who has gifted me with their time and presence…
If you have eaten my food or shared some of yours with me, thank you.
If you have lent me a tool or returned one of mine, thank you.
If you have been patient, or worked under pressure with me, thank you.
If you have given me advice or encouraging words, thank you.
If you have endured hearing my knife sharpening through movies, thank you.
If you have laughed at one of my awful jokes in class or online, thank you.
If you have made me laugh in class, thank you even more.
If you have asked for a hug or gave me one (or several), thank you.
And if you have read my blog, thank you.
There are many more adventures to come.