The Final Exam

| February 11, 2006 | 5 Comments
  • 5 Comments

Wednesday, November 5, 2003. The final exam. Every day for the past six months, I’d been chopping and grilling and braising and flambeing and now I had to pull it all together for our final exam. Let me set the stage. The weather in New York had been miserable the previous week and I was sick as a chien (dog). My comrades-in-knives (Beverly, Michael & Michele) and I spent the entire weekend scripting out our recipes, trying to memorize them, and were up all night the two previous nights studying and wandering the meat-packing district looking for kosher food in driving rain. Don’t ask.

After driving my body non-stop for six months with stress, exhaustion, and inordinate amounts of butter, heavy cream, croissants and foie gras, it innately knew the end was near and was beginning its revolt. Had it been any other sort of a test like a physics final or a French mid-term, I would have hunkered down under my comforter and not emerged until I felt semi-human but there was no way I was going to miss this. No way, Jose (who is Jose anyways?). After everything I’d been through, after all the cuts and burns and humiliation and tears, I was going to finish this thing if it was the last thing I did, and it was darn near that.

24 of us, we each drew a slip of paper with 2 recipes and a number (A1, A2…A8, B1…, C1…) out of a hat, and had approx 4-5 hours to prepare both and send them out to a panel of judges of top chefs from NYC. Not that there wasn’t enough pressure or anything….. just throw in a few 4-star chefs to the mix to turn up the heat. Thank you very much and pass the Xanax. The numbers (I was A7) were listed on a whiteboard in the kitchen with the times that your specific dishes had to go out. I was relieved to draw fish and pastry recipes, as opposed to appetizer and meat as that bought me at least an hour. My first dish had to go out at 1:21pm and my second dish about 45 minutes later. I was so sick, with a raging fever, on the verge of coughing up a lung at any given moment, but was determined to get through this gauntlet.


Michele, Beverly, Michael, moi all very proud of our pate a choux swans with creme chantilly :-)

When the clock hit 9:00am EST on Wednesday, November 5, 2003, 24 mad, white-coated, knife-wielding, clog-sporting culinary students charged the kitchen and set to work. The chefs walked around with clip boards taking points off for messy stations, too many dishes in the sink, they even rifled through our garbage to see if we’d thrown out/wasted things we shouldn’t have, exuberantly living up to their “Quality. Discipline. Reality.” motto.

I ran to my station and filled a big plastic container with ice water. I spent the next 5 minutes drinking and breathing, gathering my thoughts, walking through the recipes in my head, coaching myself to calm down, breathe, it will be fine, you’ll get through this, only 5 more hours and it’s all over then you can crawl in the gutter and die…and other encouraging mantras.

I gathered all the food for my fish dish, Vivaneau Cuit Poele avec Sauce au Porto (Red Snapper with Wild Mushrooms in Port Wine Reduction), organized my station, then headed into the pastry kitchen to start my pastry and ice cream base for Tarte aux Noix avec Glace a la Creme Fraiche (Walnut Tart with Creme Fraiche Ice Cream). I made the pate sablee first, wrapped it, wrote my initials on it and hid it in one of the low fridges. People have been know to swipe others pastry when theirs hasn’t turned out, I kid you not! So much for my naive everyone-is-going-to-love-each-other and we-are-all-going-to-play-nice-and-cook-together assumption. Then I made the creme fraiche ice cream base and hid that as well to chill.

OK, 1 hour down, 4 to go. You can do it. Just keep breathing and drink water. You’re going to die anyways, just do it after the final. I began prepping the mushrooms and snow peas, tuiles and port wine reduction. Tuiles are a monstrous pain as you have to slice potatoes very thinly on a mandoline, a torture device that scares the devil out of me having taken a sizable of chunk of my thumb off more than once and shredded another. Sorry for the visual. At least I didn’t attach the picture of it, and yes, I do have a picture of it, quite a few actually from every angle.

So you place an herb in between two potato slices, brush over melted butter then place in between silpats (silicon mats) with another steel pan (or very heavy pan on top of another sheet pan) to keep them flat. The issue is you can’t check on them, you have to let them cook and hopefully have done it so many times before in class that you should know when it’s ready. Right? Wrong! My first batch was 1/2 overcooked, 1/2 undercooked – damn, forgot to rotate the sheet pan. I buried the rogue tuiles far down in the garbage away from the probing hands of the chefs. Round 2. Came out perfectly, the tuile gods decided to smile down upon me. Better late than never.

Once the mushrooms were sauteed and caramelized, the snow peas were blanched, and the port veal sauce was reducing nicely, I traipsed back to the pastry kitchen to finish the tarts and ice cream. I retrieved my pastry and ice cream base from the back of the small fridge and set my ice cream churning. Rolling out the dough and molding the tart rings, chilling them then making the batter, I was quite pleased with myself for holding it together so well and for managing my timing. My timing! Ohmigod! I looked at the clock then at my watch and it said 1:15pm! 6 minutes to get out my fish dish! OHMIGOD! RUN!

I raced back to the main kitchen, threw down the pans, fired up the burners, rubbed Chinese 5-spice on the Snapper fillets, slapped them on the pans and prayed to the fish gods. I plunged the snow peas in boiling water I borrowed from the person next to me whose dish had just gone out, fanned them at the top of 4 plates, gave the mushrooms a quick toss on a searing hot pan, placed a heaping of sauteed wild mushrooms in the center of each of the four plates, crossed 2 fillets of Snapper over the mushrooms, poured port sauce around the bottom of the plates, sprinkled chopped chives, garnished with a potato tuile and sent them out at exactly 1:21pm!

I immediately burst into tears. The tears just poured down my face. They wouldn’t stop. I was just so exhausted, so sick, so relieved, so overjoyed, so everything that the emotions just flowed out through tears. Then one of the chefs said, “It’s not over yet! Get in there and finish your pastry!” So I raced back to the pastry kitchen, pulled myself together, finished my walnut tart, garnished it with a scoop of creme fraiche ice cream, and a few squiggles of caramel sauce and sent it out. 6 months earlier I was saying, “I can’t believe I’m here.” Now I was saying, “I can’t believe I did it!” The champagne popped and we started toasting.

At 2:45pm we were sent upstairs to change into a clean uniform and instructed to meet back in the kitchen at 3pm sharp. We were herded back into our 3 groups (remember, I’m A7, something I’ll never forget.) and sat, as a group (!), in front of our panel of judges as they critiqued our food, yes, in front of the group! I was dreading the public humiliation and had to wait through 6 rave critiques including J.D.’s consomme that was “Michelin star quality” – no surprise that he just received a real Michelen star as head chef at Danube.


Chef Henri, Chef Pascal, Chef Susan, J.D., moi at graduation where we received the tall chefs toques along with our diploma

As the judges worked their way around the semi-circle my anxiety level shot up like a thermometer in a road runner cartoon. “Number 7″, I heard. Oh God that’s me! I wanted to crawl under my chair. I cringed waiting for the verbal whipping but to my absolute disbelief the chefs, including Andre Soltner and two of his former sous-chefs at 35-years-running 4-star Lutece, told me my fish dish was perfect, as was my tart! The tears poured down my face again. I really couldn’t believe I did it! I didn’t give up. I didn’t get scared. Well I did get scared, many times, but I didn’t let it sabotage me. I didn’t run off the stage, as a friend claims I do at the first whisper of success. A very unfamiliar, but very wonderful, feeling. I went to bed that night an didn’t get up for 2 weeks.

After the judging I thanked Andre Soltner and he said to me that when he met me a year earlier in San Francisco he never thought I’d be able to cook like that. A back-handed sort of compliment but a compliment nonetheless and I take what I can get these days… Bon appetit!

Note: these recipes are written out as we did to study for our final. It’s not the conventional ingredients then steps listing but hopefully it will make sense and give you some ideas as how to arrange those daunting recipes that go on ad nauseum for pages on end. For our purposes, the steps (1., 2., etc…) were written in a column directly to the right of the corresponding ingredients but this format doesn’t allow for it so I tried to make it as easily readable as possible. Give a shout if you have any questions.

Vivaneau Cuit Poele, Sauce au Porto ~
Red Snapper with Wild Mushrooms in Port Reduction Sauce

Step 1: Prep

1. Get Pans: bain marie, 3 sautoirs (pot with straight sides), 5 sauteuse (large frying pans with angled sides), bowl w/ ice, hotel pan, rings, foil, mandolin, 2 steel sheet pans, 2 silpats, parchment paper, mip cups (mise en place cups)
2. Get Herbs, Clarified Butter
3. Preheat oven to 300F for maximes.

Step 2: Sauce

1 L Brown Stock
1 L Port
1 L Sherry Vinegar

4. Reduce stock by 3/4.
5. Reduce port by 1/2 – 3/4.
6. Add to reduced port and reduce again by 3/4.
7. Add port/vinegar reduction to the reduced stock. Put in bain marie. Season.

Step 3: Fish

4 pc Snapper

8. Portion fish into 150 g pieces. Slice in ½ on bias. Score skin. Wrap. Chill.

Step 4: Mushrooms

60 g Creminis
60 g Shiitake
60 g Oyster
60 g Portobello

9. Saute each type mushroom in oil separately in hot pan. Caramelize

1 ea Shallot, fine ciseler (tiny dice)
4 sprigs Thyme
4 cloves Garlic, smash, no germ

10. Add to mushrooms, finish cooking. Remove thyme, garlic. Hold in hotel pan.

Step 5: Garnish ~ Snow Peas, Potato Maxime, Chives, Salt

24 ea Snow Peas, a l’anglais (cooked in boiling, salted water)

11. Cook. Shock (drop in ice water to stop cooking). Cut top on angle, seeds on left.

2 ea Idaho Potatoes, peeled
8 sprig Chervil
- Clarified Butter

12. Peel. Put in water. Slice paper thin on mandoline. Lay slices on silpat.
13. Put Chervil sprig on potato slice. Top with potato slice.
14. Brush with clarified butter. Cover w/ silpat/parchment. Cover w/ steel pan.
15. Bake in oven at 300F, 20 minutes. Set aside on parchment

- Chives, chopped

16. Chop. Plate on top of sauce at service

1 mip Fleur de Sel (mise en place cup)

17. Plate on top of fish at service

Step 6: Fish

8 pc Fish

17. Rub skin of fish with back of knife to remove moisture.

- Salt, Pepper

18. Salt, pepper flesh. Pepper skin.

1 mip Wondra Flour
1 mip Chinese 5-Spice Powder

19. Sprinkle Wondra, 5-Spice on skin

Step 7: Service

20. Warm 4 plates, 12″ plates
21. Add oil to sauteuse, heat to smoking. Lay fish skin side down. Press down on fish when first in pan. Cook 90%. Flip to finish.
22. Flash snow peas in boiling water.
23. Heat mushrooms in sauteuse
24. Put port sauce in sauteuse. Monter au beurre (whisk in cold chunks of butter to velvety consistency and shine).
25. Plate snow peas, fanned, seeds on left
26. Plate mushrooms in center in ring.
27. Plate fish in “X” on mushrooms
28. Plate sauce from “9 to 3″
29. Sprinkle chives on sauce
30. Potato maxime in slit on fish.
31. Sprinkle fleur de sel on fish

Tarte aux Noix, Glace a la Creme Fraiche ~ Walnut Tart with Creme Fraiche Ice Cream

Step 1: Prep

1. Pans: bowl on ice, chinois, sautoir, 4 tart molds, parchment paper, blind bake beans, wooden spoon, rubber spatula, paddle, skewer
2. Heat convection oven to 350F

Step 2: Creme Fraiche Ice Cream

1 L Milk
500 ml Heavy Cream
455 g Granulated Sugar
16 ea Egg Yolks

3. Make creme anglaise.
- blanchir (whisk til lightened in color) 1/2 sugar, egg yolks
- heat cream, milk, 1/2 sugar.
- temper, return to pot, cook to nappant with wooden spoon
- strain through chinois (strainer) into bowl on ice bath, vanner (stir to cool).

500 g Creme Fraiche

4. Stir in creme fraiche w/ rubber spatula.

Step 3: Pate Sablee

250 g Flour
90 g Confectioners Sugar (10x)
pinch Salt

5. In kitchenaid w paddle, combine flour sugar salt.

150 g Butter, cold, cubed
2 ea Egg Yolks
1 T Vanilla Extract
1-2 T Ice Water, if needed

6. Add in butter, mix to sandy texture.
7. Add yolks, vanilla extract. Mix til solid. Flatten, wrap, rest, chill.

Step 4: Dough

8. Roll out dough to 1/4″ thickness. Cut with ring mold.
9. Mold dough into tart pans. Freeze for 5 mins.

Note: If ice cream is ready, now scoop onto plate and cover.

Step 5: Walnut Filling and Tarts

200 g Chopped Walnuts

10. Lightly toast in oven. Chop.
11. Blind bake tart crusts w/ parchment, beans at 375F, 7-10 mins

2 ea WHOLE EGGS (I capitalized this because when I made this during class I wasn’t paying attention and only used egg yolks and my tarts were a disaster!)
70 g Granulated Sugar
100 g Creme Fraiche

12. In kitchenaid, combine eggs, sugar, creme fraiche. Don’t overmix.

60 ml Grand Marnier
45 g Butter, melted
75 g Brown Sugar

13. Add. Mix well.
14. Put 1 layer of nuts in tart pans.
15. Pour in filling 3/4 up sides.
16. Bake 375F, 15 – 20 mins.

Step 6: Service

Get 4 – 10″ plates.

- Apricot Glaze

17. Brush with Apricot Glaze (In cup, add glaze, water. Microwave. Strain.)

- Caramel Sauce

18. Place drops on center of plate to anchor tart. Plate tart.

- Chocolate Sauce

19. Alternate chocolate, caramel sauce dots around tart.
20. Run skewer (paring knife) through dots.

4 scoops Ice Cream

21. Scoop ice cream on center of tart.

And after that, a big whopping Bon Appetit!

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About the Author ()

After a decade in Silicon Valley, Laura traded her keyboard for a cutting board and moved to New York City to immerse herself in food and wine studies and restaurant operations. She graduated from the French Culinary Institute where she studied under Master Chefs Jacques Pépin, André Soltner, Alain Sailhac, and Master Sommelier Andrea Immer. While in New York, Laura cooked with some of the world's most highly acclaimed chefs including Mario Lohninger (Danube), Morimoto, Mark Franz & Emily Luchetti (Farallon), Michael Romano (Union Square Café), Mario Batali, Marcella Hazan, Jonathan Cartwright (White Barn Inn), Martin Heierling (Bellagio), Dave Pasternack (Esca), Richard Reddington (Redd, Auberge du Soleil), and the legendary Alice Waters (Chez Panisse). After working as the Back Kitchen Chef of Jacques Pépin's PBS cooking show, "Fast Food, My Way", Laura moved to France to cook her way around the country. She cooked at the Cannes Film Festival, then to the northwest corner of France, to Britanny, to cook on a lobster boat, then east to Paris to the world famous Pierre Hermé Patisserie where she made thousands of his macarons every day! Laura cooked for the fabulous Olivia de Havilland and interned at 3 Michelin Star Le Cinq under Chef Philippe Legendre and Pastry Chef Fabrice Lecleir. Laura was the executive chef and cooking instructor at the DaVinci Code chateau outside of Paris where she was on set during the filming of the movie. In Fall 2007, Laura worked on Jacques Pepin’s most recent PBS television series as prop and food stylist. "More Fast Food, My Way" should air in the Spring of 2008. “My Keyboard for a Cutting Board ~ Adventures in a French kitchen v1.0”, Laura’s first book highlights her first three months cooking in France, was published in Summer 2006. Convivialité is her second book and will hopefully be published in the fall. Laura now splits her time between Paris and the San Francisco Bay Area doing private chefing, teaching cooking classes and leading market tours when in Paris. Bon Appetit!
  • Alicat

    WOW! That is amazing Laura!

    CONGRATULATIONS WOMAN! :)

  • Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

    I’ll second that emotion. Once again, Laura, I stand in awe of your prowess.

  • cucina testa rossa

    thank you both so much, your words are much too kind. as i always say, if i can do it, anyone can. cooking school was the hardest thing i’ve ever done in my life and when things get rough, i just look back and think if i can survive that, i can survive anything. it got me thru many a day gutting fish on the lobster boat, that’s for sure! :-)

  • Tania

    Amazing post, Laura! So vividly written, that I felt as though I was there with you. Bravo!

  • cucina testa rossa

    thank you so much tania! after that i finally knew what athletes meant by “leaving it on the field”, or on the stove in my case :-)