Sunday, April 27, 2008

School: Level 3 Begins

Earlier this week at school, my classmates and I began Level 3 of the culinary arts program. Level 3 is all about consistency and timing in both preparation and presentation. It concludes the first half of the program, during which we only cook for ourselves and our instructors. In Levels 4-6, we begin cooking for the public, at first in Level 4 for the other students, faculty and staff at the school, and then in Levels 5 and 6 when we go work in the school's restaurant.

In Level 3, each of us has one or two dishes to make every night, and an assigned time to present them to the chef. You make four servings of your dish, plate them all identically, and carry them up to the chef for evaluation at your assigned presentation time. For the first couple of classes, chef was fairly lenient and allowed people to show their dishes up to ten minutes or so late, but last night (our third class) he finally enforced at least one hard deadline, yelling over the room, "If you don't have those eggs up here in two minutes, you can just throw them in the compost." ("Those eggs" in this case were an appetizer or warm salad consisting of several vegetables cut in a small dice, cooked separately, then combined and plated with a ring mold, and topped with a poached egg which was covered in hollandaise sauce.)

As a group, we make the same dishes over and over again. There are four stations in the kitchen, and there are four recipes used throughout Level 3 at each of the stations, for a total of 16 different dishes. The stations in the kitchen are: garde manger (soups and salads), poissonier (fish), saucier (meats), and patissier (desserts). The recipes emphasize very basic classical preparation and cooking techniques, rather than interesting or fresh or modern tastes, and the idea behind them is that these are the things you need to be able to do properly even if you're having a bad day. You want to get to where everything is perfectly cooked, seasoned, and plated, and then served before it begins to suffer in quality from waiting around if you finish before the assigned service time.

Level 3 has a much more regular routine to each class, and although we work at a station with one partner, we prepare all of the dishes on our own. When it makes sense, partners can share some of the prep work, such as cutting up vegetables, but usually it's easier just to do your own thing and not try to coordinate with someone else. If you get in a jam, especially as you approach your plating and presentation time, if your partner has a moment to spare, you might be able to ask for help for a minute. Otherwise, everything about your dish is up to you.

The routine for the class begins with the usual gathering of ingredients that precedes the official start time of 5:45pm. From 5:45 until about 6:15, the chef instructor will lecture or demonstrate something new or something that he's noticed people having trouble with. Then for the next two or three hours, we're off on our own to prepare our dishes. Right now, everything is served between 8:30pm and 9:30pm, though chef might plan to move this schedule up in the coming weeks:

8:30: First garde manger dish
8:37: First fish
8:42: First meat
8:49: First dessert
8:56: Second garde manger
9:03: Second fish
9:10: Second meat
9:17: Second dessert

Once presentations are done, we clean the kitchen until about 9:35, and then have a half-hour break. After the break, chef will talk or do more demonstrations, and then we usually finish early around 10:35 or so. While it would seem to make sense to skip the break and leave for the night a half hour early, I think the school has a rule for the instructors that they need to keep everyone in class until at least 10:30, and given that it is nice to have a few minutes to wind down from cooking before we have a bit of post-game lecture and discussion.

For the first couple of classes, each of us had only a single dish to make, which allowed a lot of time to learn our way around the new kitchen we are in for this level. For last night's class, the third one, the garde manger and dessert stations were told that each person should make both of their dishes for the night. You'll soon realize this adds up to an awful lot of food we are making and can't possibly eat, even if we weren't sick of eating the same things class after class. There are four people working each station, and if they both make both dishes, each person is producing eight finished plates, for a total of 32 servings from that one station, with only 20 people in the room to consume it (18 students and two chef instructors). So altogether we can end up with about 32 full four-course meals every night.

The exam at the end of Level 3, which is the midterm exam for the program, is said to be the most difficult exam we will take. For the exam, the chef selects some of the dishes from the collection of Level 3 recipes, and then each of us will randomly draw an assignment to determine what we will make. Our assignment will either consist of a garde manger and a meat dish, or a fish dish and a dessert, along with our assigned serving times. The dishes are served to a panel of judges made up of recent graduates from the school. As our previous chef said, "They can be very tough. Since they finished at the school, they've been working in the trade for two or three months, and they think they know everything now." In addition to the finished product and meeting your assigned serving time, you are also graded by proctors who watch as you work in the kitchen, looking at everything from how clean and organized you are and whether your knives are sharp to whether you are preparing the recipes in a logical order and using proper techniques.

For the exam, you cook the recipes without any notes, which means you need to have them memorized. Before we got to Level 3, I had heard from several people that we make the same things over and over again, so I was surprised to learn that some of these dishes we will only be scheduled to make a single time during the Level 3 classes. I've found that one of the most important reasons to be on time with your presentation is that you can be there to hear chef evaluate the other people who made the same dish, and learn from his observations on their plates. Even though you might make some of the dishes only once or twice, you can learn something about each of them every day by seeing the things that go well and go badly for others around you. In addition, our chef wants us to push ourselves to make as much as we can in every class, to get practice at organizing the production of multiple dishes as we will have to do for our midterm, so if ingredients are available and you organize your night well, you can give yourself another chance to make something you are having trouble getting right.

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