Friday, March 7, 2008

First Grade

On Tuesday of this week, all of us in my class at the FCI passed our first "practical exam," at the end of Level 1 of the program, and we began Level 2 on Thursday. As I've told a few people, passing the Level 1 exam is a little like passing a spelling test at the end of first grade: it doesn't mean that you know how to spell, it just means you can spell enough first grade words that you won't be completely lost if you move on to second grade.

The exam was pretty straightforward, consisting of simple (but small -- julienne and brunoise, about 1.5mm, and jardiniere and macedoine, about a half centimeter, or a bit under a quarter inch) vegetable cuts and very plainly cooked vegetables. Like everything else at cooking school, it was good that the actual activity involved in our first experience (in this case, our first exam) was very straightforward, because it gives you a chance to become familiar with a new working environment. The most notable and unexpected aspect of the exam for me was how crowded the room was. Each of us was assigned a position in front of a cutting board, and the boards were arranged on worktables with only about two or three inches of space between them. This meant that you were standing only about 18 inches away from your neighbor on either side. Some expected differences in the exam environment were that we were proctored during the exam by chefs other than our fearless leader, Chef Marc, and no questions were permitted about the instructions given for the exam.

For our first class in Level 2, we made a couple of braised dishes, one a Navarin d'Agneau (leg of lamb in a brown sauce flavored and colored with some tomato), the other Coq Au Vin, chicken marinated and braised in red wine. Those dishes are essentially a continuation of what we'd been doing toward the end of Level 1 right before our exam, but again they served the purpose of introducing us to a new kitchen (Level 2 classes are held in a room with a slightly different arrangement) without having to simultaneously take on some new cooking process.

But from this point on, Level 2 becomes quite different from Level 1. Where Level 1 surveyed each of the basic vegetables and meats and cooking techniques, Level 2 is more of a survey of some special preparations. We'll have classes on stuffings (forcemeats and purees to stuff vegetables or meats or make terrines or pâtés); eggs; tarts, crêpes and other pastries; custards and ice creams; nutrition; food control in a restaurant (ordering, receiving, storing, costing); cheese; rice and pasta.

Looking ahead, Level 3 is said to be the most difficult part of the program. In Level 3, the class is broken into small teams each night, with each team responsible for some part of the kitchen, such as sauces and meat preparation, or garde manger (cold dishes), or pastries, and you make the same handful of dishes over and over again with the goal of being able to make all of them absolutely perfectly by the time you have your midterm at the end of Level 3. There is severe time pressure applied in Level 3, with the delivery time of dishes specified to the minute, and grading deductions for every minute you are late. As Chef Marc told us by way of previewing upcoming attractions, "If you are 20 minutes late with any dish, you can pack your knives and go home."

If we survive that, Level 4 is then the most fun part of the program. In Level 4, the class cooks a meal for the entire school (all of the faculty, staff and students; day students prepare lunch for 300 people, and night students prepare dinner for a couple hundred). What makes it fun is that once you've got the basics covered -- a meat, a vegetable, and a starch -- you get to play around and make whatever else you can find around the kitchen and feel like experimenting with for a captive audience of people interested in what you can do with food. In addition some of the Level 4 students work on "production," which means turning whole animals into cuts of meat for use in cooking. The program ends with Levels 5 and 6, during which you are cooking for the public restaurant operated by the school, L'Ecole.

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