Chapter 5: Week 1: First day at School

After weeks of preparation, months of planning and a couple of years of thinking about it, my first day at cookery school finally came and, just like in the restaurant, went in a fast-moving blur of put your stuff here, cut that, boil the other and find yourself a saucepan.

The biggest disappointment of the first day was that we weren’t allowed to eat what we cook – it goes to the school staff canteen or college brasserie the next day. And not much technique was taught either – “slice those apples,” Chef said, as we made a tarte fine aux pommes this afternoon; I knew how to slice them nice and fine, but the chap sharing my workstation was basically just quartering them to fan out on top of his apple tart. “It’s quicker that way,” he said. Erm… peel, core and halve your apple, turn it flat side down, convert to slices using your biggest (or smallest, depending on what you have to prove…) knife.

So Day One, Lesson One is exactly what you’d hope from a French catering college – we started the morning making fond de veau, veal stock, a real mainstay of traditional French cuisine. Take five or ten kilos of washed veal bones (some even boil them, but that’s exaggerating in a kitchen where you have far too many commis), cut into 4-5 centimetre lengths (butchers with bandsaws are handy here), add some roughly chopped carrots, onions and any other bits of vegetables you have lying around, some parsley stalks and a bouquet garni of herbs (thyme, rosemary, a bayleaf all wrapped up in a bit of green leek leaf and tied around with string), cover with water and set to simmer very gently on the back of the flat-top of the stove for 5 − 8 hours. Don’t let it boil fiercely, you’ll emulsify all the scum and fat together and end up with grey stock. Skim off the grey scum and fat that collects on the surface from time to time. When you’re fed up waiting for it to finish, or you just have to go home, let it cool down (it helps at this point if you have a blast chiller), filter it and use it at will. You can reduce it down which helps with finding room to store it all. It makes a great base for soups and sauces – its gelatinous qualities will add a superb unctuousness to everything and really improve what we’re now supposed to call ‘mouth feel’, I understand.

We had our first classroom lessons today, too; an hour on cookery theory with School Chef, and an hour of, today, ‘hygiene’, which is apparently more than just ‘wash your hands.’ Microbes, in fact, are really, really tiny organisms which can breed very, very quickly. I know we have to make allowances for the fact that this content is normally aimed at bored 16-year-olds, but still…Next week we have ‘Droit’, Law. Let’s hope it’s more interesting.

We make tartes fines de pommes this afternoon, complete with that non-lesson on how to slice apples in a manner which could be called ‘fine’. My pastry, as usual, is just ‘meh’; I’ve never been good with pastry, my hands are too hot, but I can do the compote de pommes and the apple slicing and peeling with panache (which, it turns out, is French for ‘shandy’). The compote and nicely sliced and arranged apples cover up the horror that is my pastry, and we’re done.

We clean down the kitchen together, hosing the floor with the special hosepipe like in the restaurant – it adds cleaning solution automatically, then we scrub and squeegee clean after washing down all the work surfaces. Another group of us wash up the pots and pans – I try not to do this one since it’s what I do all day at work normally.

Chef catches up with me as I leave the administration building. A lean, worn-down sort of guy (lots of good chefs have this pared-down appearance) with a shock of once-gingerish hair, he seems nice enough but he tells me off for turning up in my cycling clothes – trainers, jogging bottoms, anorak – and said I should be arriving in a suit and tie after cycling 5 kms from the centre of town. “But it’s only 50 metres from the gates at the entry of the school to the changing room and we stay in our kitchen clothes all day,” I say. “Of course I’m gonna put on a suit and tie for that distance!” I joke.

“Well, I do,” he says – and it turns out, he does! He tells me that he lives not far from me in the middle of town and cycles down on his boneshaker, loaded with kit and books, in a suit and tie. And there he is standing in front of me in a jacket and tie, heading for his bike.

“It’s the school rules – when on campus you should at all times be either in ‘tenue de cuisine’, cook’s whites, or ‘Smart apparel’. My cycling gear, he informs me with a superior air, is not ‘Smart’.

“Yes, Chef,” I lie because you never say ‘No, Chef’. I’m not really going to do that. The only suit I own now is of the monkey variety, i.e. A dinner jacket and I’m not planning to wear that on my bicycle even for a bet. No one says anything else to me for the whole year, but Chef cycles past me in a stately fashion every week in his tweed jacket and tie, me in my scruffy track suit and trainers.

Perhaps I lack the dedication needed to be a really good cook, let alone chef; if I were better at this I wouldn’t hesitate to slip into a little something from Saville Row and cycle five kilometres in it, before donning my immaculate whites. Then again, most of the chefs I see on the telly are scruffy, bearded monsters wearing watches, of all things, in the kitchen (watches catch on saucepan handles and bring your precious ingredients crashing to the floor).

Both my chefs in Avignon are old-school; neither of them has hardly ever had the time to watch the cooking Channel, let alone be aware of celebrity chefs. And it’s an attitude I’m not against.

I just don’t want to cycle to school in a suit.

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