A little over a week ago, I passed the midterm exam that marks the halfway point of the culinary program I'm in at the FCI. My score wasn't great, but it was good enough, probably about average in our class. Everyone says that the midterm is the most difficult exam that we'll take in the school. The final exam, at the end of the program (in late October for my class), is very similar to the midterm, but when you take it you have a lot more experience with precise cooking and formal plating, and I've heard that the two dishes that you have to cook for the final are drawn from only four possible choices whereas for the midterm your two dishes are drawn from sixteen possibilities that you need to be ready to make.
The Level 3 curriculum consists of sixteen dishes that the class makes over and over again. There are four appetizers (soups or vegetable salads), four fish dishes, for main course meats, and four desserts. For the first half of Level 3, as a class we make eight of those sixteen dishes each night, and in the last half we make four of them each night along with a canapé (a single-bite appetizer assembled so that it can be picked up with hands not using utensils) of our own devising prepared from ingredients that the chef would bring into class each day. For the exam, the chef picks one dish from each of the categories -- one appetizer, one fish, one meat, and one dessert. Then you draw out of a hat to see which two of those four dishes you will make for your exam. You either get an appetizer and a meat, or a fish and a dessert. Whatever dishes you draw, you prepare four plates of those dishes to present to the judging panel. When your plates go to the judges, one of the first things they look at is whether your four plates look identical, because one of the purposes of Level 3 is to develop consistency in cooking, portioning, and presenting food, and no one likes to have two examples of the same dish go out to two different diners in a restaurant with noticeable differences that will make one of the diners think he got the short end of the stick in some way. While you cook for the exam, other chefs from the school who have not been instructors for your class serve as proctors, and walk around the room making notes on how you go about your work, looking at things like whether you are efficient with time and the product and equipment you take, and whether you are organized and your station is kept clean while you are working.
Going into the exam, many people have certain dishes that they hope not to draw as their exam assignment. My own preference was to make an appetizer and a main course meat, as opposed to the fish course and a dessert. I don't like to make the dessert dishes, and in particular there was one dish on our list that I knew I couldn't make one part of correctly at all: the Crème Renversée, which is a baked and chilled vanilla custard with caramel on top, and includes rolled tuille cookies, which are very thin sugar cookies rolled up while they are still hot into cigarette shapes, and I had never been able to make decent tuilles in all of my attempts. I spent several hours making about 30 of them at home one night before the exam, and not a single one would have been acceptable for real restaurant service. So of course when we got to the exam and I drew out of the hat the little paper that gave me my dishes and serving times, wouldn't you know that I got the Filet de Limande Marguery (an elegant white flounder dish) and the Crème Renversée. To make up for it, at least I got lucky with late serving times, drawing the fifth time out of six possibilities.
The flounder is one of my favorite dishes in the Level 3 curriculum. Our chef prescribes an especially formal plating for the dish, and really it is the only dish of all of our meats and fish for Level 3 that is more elegant than rustic. Since all of the parts of it cook so quickly, and I had made it a couple of times very successfully earlier in class, I let myself think that it was easier for me to make than it really is. In a nutshell, here's what you do: filet the flounder and make a stock from the bones with some aromatics; cut and turn potatoes into little football shapes called cocotte and cook them in simmering salted water; steam mussels using some white wine in a pan in which you first sweat some shallots and shrimp shells; fold or roll the fish fillets so they are an inch or so thick and cook them along with some shrimp that you had peeled earlier in a skillet with shallots, fish stock and white wine; make a white sauce by reducing the cooking liquid after removing the fish and then reducing cream into it. Really that should be easy, but like everything we do, it always takes me longer than I think it will. To plate it, we reheat everything, and plate the rolled fish fillet in the middle of the plate, surrounded by mussels on the half shell alternated with the cocotte potatoes pointing away from the fish at six even points on the plate, so that the mussels are oriented as though they lie along clock hands pointing to twelve, four, and eight o'clock, and the potatoes similarly pointing at two, six, and ten o'clock. The fish is then completely covered in the white sauce made by reducing cream into the stock and wine from cooking the fish, and then it is topped with one or two (depending on their size) shrimp.
Before I began working on the flounder, though, I made my Crème Renversée, which is a custard that must be baked and then chilled for serving, so I wanted to make sure that I got it out of the oven in time to get it chilled all the way through before its 9:55pm serving time. To begin, I melted sugar with a bit of water in a pan and heated it until it began to darken and turn into caramel. This is always a dicey operation for me, because I can't really tell dark red from brown or black, so there's no visible difference to me between good caramel and sugar that has been cooked so bitter as to be inedible. I used gentler heat than most people do in caramelizing sugar so I could watch it darken slowly, and taking my best guess about when it was done I threw a bit of ice in the pan to stop it from overheating and poured it into the ramekins I had ready for the custards. In making the custard, for which you basically whisk sugar into eggs, boil milk with vanilla, and then mix the two together, when I tempered the egg mixture, for the first time ever in making a custard, some of my eggs scrambled. I cooled the mix a bit by stirring it and then got everything combined together and strained it, and I ended up with about one or two teaspoons of scrambled egg in the strainer. At that point, I had to decide whether to start over or press on hoping there was still enough egg in the mix to set the custards. I decided to keep going, but then I was worried for the rest of the night about whether my custards had really set in the middle. (They had.)
After serving my flounder (due at 9:13pm), I still hadn't made tuilles for the dessert. They don't take long to make, and I was otherwise all set with my custards, but I had never made them successfully. In the end, I got lucky again, because for the exam I made the only decent tuilles I've ever made (but I think I learned that previously I had never spread the batter thin enough), and my dish went out the door to the judges on time and they were happy with it.
Now we are on to Level 4, a much different environment in which for the first time we are cooking food meant to be eaten by people not in our class. Up to now, everything we've made has really been an exercise, to be evaluated by our instructors and then either eaten by us or thrown away. (By the end of Level 3, everyone is so tired of having those dishes that nearly everything gets thrown away.) Now we are preparing food for the rest of the school to eat on their meal breaks, and some of us also do "production" for the restaurant and the rest of the school, which means cleaning, trimming, and breaking down large cuts of meat or fish into the portions to be cooked in the restaurant or in classes, and also making the stocks used throughout the school. Perhaps I'll share more on this and other things later; for now I'm glad to have gotten through what everyone says is the hardest part of the program.