Chapter 7, Week 3: First presentation, top marks

In my diary today I wrote, and I quote: “Journée excellente à l’école aujourd’hui; Filets de Rouget, sauce bonne femme avec légumes glacés à blanc”.

I didn’t realise I’d written it in French until I read it later. I’ve started speaking and thinking in French almost all the time, even when I write my diary. Apart from half an hour on the ‘phone to my mother every Sunday I almost never speak English at all these days.

We were due to cook more Merlan at school this week but they didn’t have any, unfortunately, so we got rougets – the cheap kind, not the ‘de rochers’ type Chef buys at the restaurant, which have pointy, not rounded noses. The pointy-nosed ones live in among the rocks where they feast on whatever lives inside the cracks in the stone, hence the usefully pointy noses. They taste better as a result, so check your rouget’s nose before buying.

On average I clean (de-fin, scale and gut) about a hundred rougets a week in the restaurant, so cleaning and filleting 10 today wasn’t much of a hardship, really. We were supposed to do three or four each, but school Chef knows I know how to do fish so he gave me all the extra left-over ones to do. Which I enjoy doing anyway, so that’s fine and I’m pleased he has confidence in me to make me do them.

To go with the rougets we learn sauce Bonne Femme. It’s made with a “réduction glacé”, a reduced glaze of the fumet de poisson, the fish stock we made with the rouget bones and a handful of onions, shallots, leeks, vegetable trimmings and whatever you can scrape from under your fingernails. A glacé means reducing the cooking fluid (after cooking the fillets for seven minutes in the oven in the fumet) down to a syrupy consistency, then monté it au beurre – stir in lots and lots of butter (a hundred grammes in about 50 ccs of fumet).

We also had to cook three vegetables to go with the fish: carrots, turnips and more courgettes all “turned” – cut into pleasing shapes. The same shape for all three, of course. With minimal waste, too. You not allowed to start with a 100 gramme carrot to make a single, beautifully-turned 15 gramme presentation piece and they all have to be 2.5 centimetres long, oval-shaped and with no blemishes.

Today is also the first time we’ve had to present our work on a plate to Chef, and I’m extremely pleased to have got great marks for everything except for my courgettes, which apparently didn’t have enough salt in them. Chef is a demon for salt, however, and ‘enough’ for him is ‘blerk!’ for normal people, so I’m not too worried about that; still, know your client and cook accordingly. His problem is that he’s a smoker, and smokers really can’t detect ‘correct’ quantities of salt – they need about half as much again as everyone else.

He marked us plus or minus on seven criteria – overall presentation, cleanliness of the plate (ha! I was the only person who thought to wash their provided plate before serving, and then to heat it up in the oven), warmth of the dish, taste of the fish, sauce and vegetables. I got a plus in everything except the courgettes, which he marked  plus-minus, and the overall presentation which got a double plus plus as the most original of the day. Cool. I served it with the two fillets back-to-back in the middle of the plate, vertically, with the veg (two each of three veg – carrots, turnips and courgettes) arranged along the sides like rays of sunshine, the sauce at either end but not between the veg, then a long line of chopped parsley dribbled vertically up the plate and right over the edges. Looked nice I thought, anyway, and so did Chef. We’re supposed to go for height, too, but I’m really not into building towers and propping fish fillets up with lumps of turnip. I’m happy with my masculinity as it is, thankyou, but still, know your client. Especially when they want you to dribble chopped herbs across your plate – very old-fashioned these days, says my Restaurant Chef. He wants single, appropriate leaves poised delicately on dishes, not large amounts sprinkled willy-nilly on plates.

It’s here that cooking resembles my previous career, journalism; in principle in both jobs you’re writing or cooking for a large audience of consumers. In practise, you’re cooking for one person, your editor or chef. S/he is the person who decides what the consumer wants, and it’s your job as the writer or cook to match the vision of your boss. Only when you get to be an editor or chef do you get to decide what the punter wants.

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