Chapter 8, Week 4: Puffing and panting

Once again Chef (restaurant – as opposed to Chef (Ecole)) came up trumps by getting me to make a few kilos of puff pastry in advance of this week’s school session. Normally in the restaurant we use bought-in sheets of frozen puff pastry, one of the very (very very) few ready-made things we use, for several reasons: It’s good quality; it’s not expensive; and we don’t have a chef-patissier. Chef spent three months at the start of the year looking for a decent patissier, and even thought he’d got a good one signed up until, at the last moment he instead accepted a full-time contract in a restaurant on the Cote d’Azur in one of the Palace Hotels down around Nice. There is a HUGE lack of cooks in the entire French catering industry – not just in restaurants. Overall the country is about 70,000 cooks short, and good patissiers are worth their weight in truffles, the real ones not chocolate ones. We were offering a large salary and good benefits but someone even richer offered him more – so, if you fancy working in France, bone up on your pastry skills – there’s work waiting for you.

The only caution I’d offer is that its virtually essential to speak French at least a bit, simply for your own comfort. We’ve had stagiaires who didn’t speak French and, luckily for them, my Chef is easy-going and prepared to work his schoolboy English, but they’re not all like that. There are, unfortunately, chefs too stupid to realise that in a market where there’s a lack of talent you have to treat the talent you can find nicely – which is how come I was able to have a blazing row and quit my last job with a chef traiteur in front of a shop full of customers (“Je m’en fous de ce putain de merde de travail! Je démission!”) and walk into a good job the next day.

So, a couple of kilos of puff pastry last week gave me a head-start on doing it at school this week and, again, an interesting insight into different techniques of doing things; at the restaurant I mixed the détrempe, the flour and water mixture, in a big bowl; at school it’s direct on the worksurface, which made more mess for no apparent gain. We also used margarine at school instead of the ‘beurre fin’ (butter with less than 16% water content) at the restaurant. The margarine was easier to work but gave a much poorer quality taste at the end. But it is cheaper.

We used the puff pastry to make some sardine tarts, so we also got to practise our fish gutting skills again; a Chef I know in England has told me about his old Portuguese kitchen porter who could disembowel and de-bone a sardine just by running his thumb up along through its guts and then ‘sort of twisting it’, but I can’t work out how to do that so have to stick with the knife technique I do know. A quick ‘tomate fondue’ (sweated shallots, concassé of tomatoes and a touch of garlic all stewed together) makes a base and finishes off a simple tart.

We start the afternoon with another ‘droit’ class, business administration; this is the most boring thing we do – the teacher, who normally teaches recalcitrant 16-year-olds, thinks that the best way to teach us anything is to read stuff from the text book at dictation speed so we can copy it down into our own exercise books; I’ve short-circuited this process by simply buying the text book for myself and I read along with her. As our final exam will be based exclusively on exercises drawn from this book, most of us have started using this class as a time to tidy up and correct our recipe books. Or for having a nap.

More interestingly we do a mayonnaise this afternoon, our first ‘sauce émulsionnée. I’ve made it a fair few times in my life before but today it just does NOT want to work. No obvious reason why, it just won’t take and stays runny. My cooking partner wants to throw it away, but I show him how to take another egg yolk and use the runny rubbish as if it were oil, and this time it works fine. Chef was impressed I knew how to do that, too.

The rest of the afternoon we spend making a ‘tarte fine aux pommes’, a posh apple tart with the other half of the puff pastry we made this morning. A ‘tarte fine’ has crème patissière on the pastry base and then poshly-sliced apple on top. Again, it’s all about knife skills, cutting up apples into thin slices rather than giant chunks, which is much harder than non-cooks think. But my workstation partner, who never, ever cooks apart from in our lessons, has a hard time doing this sort of stuff because he simply never handles a knife anywhere else. He’s only doing the course because it gives him a wage increase at work (he works in a hospital canteen ‘conditioning’ the food prepared elsewhere, i.e. freezing/defrosting/reheating it for patients and never gets to cook – nor does he want to. Eating at his home is done via a microwave, takeaways or in a restaurant) and while I get on great with him and like him dearly, it’s maddening to be always next to someone for whom food is just fuel and cookery simply a way to get a pay rise rather than make something others want to eat.

We put our tarts in the cold room to chill while we clean up and then chef gives us our marks afterwards. I only get 7 out of 20 which is very disappointing, until I realise that someone has swapped dishes with me to get my 15. Hmm. Something like this happened the other week when I got marked down on some vegetables we’d turned, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.


Then this evening they have a big group in the restaurant and Chef has asked me to come in to work, so I cycle up there from school. It turns out to be a bit more difficult than I thought it would be to do this, since one part of the route is along a dual carriageway flyover with no pavement, so I get badly shaken about by passing lorries. In the end, I get there just in time for the staff meal – roast chicken and ‘pommes de terre coin du rue’ (potatoes cut in quarters lengthways then into a large dice, sautéed very quickly with some chopped garlic and parsley and bunged into the oven for 20 minutes – the name means ‘street corner potatoes’), one of my favourites and Chef’s, too. He suffered during the summer when our (Dutch) Seconde de Cuisine (or Sous-Chef) always cooked potatoes and roast chicken on his days off so he never got to eat them. Now every time we have potatoes everyone makes a point of moaning about how they can’t face any more because we ate so many over the summer; it never fails to get him going in a good-humoured sort of way, so it’s worth the effort.

The 47 covers don’t finish eating their puddings until gone midnight and I have to wait for their dessert plates but can leave the waiters to put their coffee cups and saucer into the soaking bowl to finish overnight and get home just before 1 am. I left home at 0715 this morning, so it’s been a long day. Delphine, my girlfriend (she’s a florist in Orange about 20 minutes up the road) is already fast asleep, and I manage to get into bed without fully waking her. Luckily for me she’s very understanding about this sort of thing and works public holidays and weekends herself, so restaurant hours don’t bother her at all.

I’m a lucky chap.



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