If you have to take time off sick from a restaurant in the South of France, you’re supposed to do it in the winter when it’s closed anyway. Luckily for me it’s January and the restaurant is – mostly – closed for the whole month, only due to officially re-open on St Valentine’s Day. There are a few groups coming in though, tourists passing through and a few local societies having their annual dinner so we’re opening the restaurant for them.
And, being a proper French restaurant, obviously we’re not hiring in anyone to do any work so all these groups are catered for by just Chef and me. This means I get to do lots of prep work before service and then work in the kitchen during service, as well as doing all the plonge, the washing up. It’s making for long days doing exactly what the doctor ordered me not to do – standing up. In fact, the doctor wanted me to go to hospital, this infection is so serious. Being a professional cook I, of course, refused, and visit a local nurse every morning to get injected in the stomach with antibiotics.
And the effort is worth it because the great news is that, after Easter, Chef has promised to hire someone else as the full-time plongeur and he’s going to promote me to Chef de Partie des Entrées, the Starters cook. I feel very, very flattered indeed. He had been speaking over Christmas with my school chef and told me how impressed they both were with my progress at school and in the restaurant. Just before I became ill he sidled up to me – literally – and started talking about how I was doing at school, and wondered what I was thinking of doing when I passed my exam.
“I suppose you’ll be looking around for a job as a Commis?” he asked. In fact, at this point my heart started to sink because I’d been hoping to stay on with him, even if it was just as plongeur. He has very high standards and I knew I was lucky to be allowed to work with him. So imagine how I was surprised when he said, “How would you like to work here – as Chef de Partie des Entrées?”
This would be a big step-up for me, jumping right over the Commis level to become responsible for all the starters in the restaurant. Menu planning, designing dishes, the lot. Even more hard work and none of it easy. Of course I said “Yes”. But of course that’s a few months away and I can still eff up badly enough to get fired, let alone be promoted. So, knuckle down.
School this week begins with cleaning and filleting rougets which we will be cooking this afternoon, and then on to making scrambled eggs the hard way and cute puff-pastry baskets. The hard way means cooking them over a bain-marie, same as doing a sauce hollandaise; in fact, Restaurant Chef has already taught me a much better method of doing things like this which need a bain marie according to the cook book – do them on the fourneau, that part of the cooker which I believe may be known as the ‘flat top’ in the US.
Anyway. RC’s patented method for cooking stuff which mustn’t get too hot is to put it on the edge of the fourneau and keep a hand on one side of the pan; when you smell burning flesh, the pan’s too hot so move it away from the heat a little until the sizzling noise dies down (NB: This is a joke, don’t try this one at home. Probably.)
It works, too, for hollandaise and scrambled eggs, although the breakfast staff who actually cook the scrambled eggs at the hotel aren’t too keen on the idea of singeing their flesh. Wimps.
At school, of course, we have to do this Properly with a capital ‘P’, so bains-marie are mounted all over the kitchen as we set to. A Bain-Marie is a bowl set over a pan of barely-simmering hot water, so everything in the bowl is cooked at a maximum of 100 degrees C, and so it takes absolutely ages and ages to prepare eggs this way, I can’t imagine breakfast clients waiting this long, I think to myself as I stir and stir and stir, thinking of the faff if we had to do 48 covers this way. Still, as I’m learning today we have to do things the way they’re shown in our text book, not how you might think it’s better to do them in real life.
The scrambled eggs go into the puff-pastry baskets we made with the pate feuilleté we produced first thing this morning – détrempe (mix flour and water in appropriate proportions) then refrigeration, then battering flat the butter so it’s one third the size of the pastry, and the first two folds; one third into the middle from the left, another third into the middle from the right, turn 90 degrees, refrigeration, rolling, two more folds, more refrigeration, more rolling, two more folds, yet more refrigeration, always in the same order. And then rolling it out to about a third of a centimetre thick and cutting out the baskets and folding over the corners…it’s harder to do than it is to describe and it’s impossible to describe. But my baskets rise nicely, thanks to the practice I’ve had back in the restaurant making puff pastry – although the marble counter top there does make it easier to keep the pastry cool, I have to say.
We make a little fondu de tomates – tomatoes mondés, peeled and de-seeded, chopped up and reduced with a little onion and herbs over a low heat – to put on top of the scrambled eggs, giving us Paniers aux Oeufs Portuguese, which we send out to the self-service cafeteria for staff and students next door as a lunch entrée. We can eat in the cafeteria too, for €5 a week (four courses, usually, a starter, main course, cheese and pudding) but the quality is variable, depending on which class has been cooking which course; if we get the youngsters who are just starting out, it tends to be simple fare prepared…well, prepared below the standard you might like to find even for €5; if it’s our class, you’d be happy paying up to €6.
In fact, as I discovered recently, those of us doing the ‘continuing education’ course one day per week spend as much time in the kitchen in our one year as those doing the same course over two years (normally the 15-17-year-olds). They get one ‘TP’ – ‘Travail Pratique’ or ‘Practical work session’ per week, which lasts for the equivalent of one service or half a day – four hours. They’re also limited by law to working a 35-hour week – Restaurant Chef tells me that, when he did his training, they worked a 53 hour week (and, probably, also lived in a cardboard box in middle of t’ road) and did four or five TPs in their school’s restaurants and loved it, too. This story was easily topped earlier this summer (we heard it more than once from Chef over staff meals when he was telling the latest crop of stagiaires just how lucky they are) by our Second de Cuisine, Christian – he’s in his mid-50s, and when he started out on his apprenticeship at the age of 14 his first duty every morning was to fill the stoves with coal – yes, coal-fired stoves as used by Carème and Escoffier! So, obviously: Young people today, blah blah blah…
Then it’s our ‘Droit’ class, Business Administration (Droit strictly translated means ‘Law’, but since French has the smallest vocabulary of any European language some words have to double up on meanings). As usual, we get 10 minutes worth of information spread out over an hour – teacher is more used to teaching recalcitrant 16-year-olds than attentive adults, and it shows. The hardest part of this class is staying awake – that and working out its relevance to cookery half the time: yes, it’s useful to know about the different types of limited companies one can form, but as I say, it’s 10 minutes worth of information. Then we discuss ‘Partenaires de l’Entreprise’ – clients, suppliers, banks, the State, accountants…There is, I’m almost sure, a reason why we are being told this stuff and each week I keep waiting for the penny to drop as its relevance to cookery becomes apparent – only to realise, after an hour, that the penny has rolled away under a table in the corner, never to be found again.
We learn how to make fumet de poisson this afternoon – how to make fish stock, which we do with the remnants of the rougets, the red mullets we trimmed, scaled, gutted and filleted this morning. Again, this is something I’ve done at work – dégorger the bits (leave them in a bowl under running water to remove the blood), sweat the GA (Garniture Aromatique of onions, shallots, leeks, carrots and mushroom peelings), raidir the fish bones – sweat them a bit over a hot flame – moisten with just enough white wine and water to cover the whole lot and simmer for just 20 minutes. I thought stocks took longer, but this is where we learn that yes, veal and beef stock take hours, days even. Fumets take tens of minutes. We filter, re-boil and then put the fumet into the rapid chiller to bring its temperature down to under 10 degrees centigrade within two hours as required under the health and safety HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Control of Critical Point) regulations.
This fumet is the basis of the court mouillement we’re going to use to cook our filets of rouget; it turns out that the English for ‘court mouillement’ is ‘court bouillon’, which seems strange – replacing one French word with another. Court bouillons, according to both Chefs, are spicier than court mouillements, and mouillements may also contain poshly-cut GA since it may be eventually served to clients.
We also turn more carrots and turnips and cook them slowly in a little water, butter, salt and pepper – ‘Glacé à blanc’, unlike last week when they were cooked à l’anglais – boiled in salted water, in other words. Every French person thinks that everything is just boiled in England. The idea of glacé à blanc is not to colour the vegetables at all but to leave them with a nice, glossy finish. We achieve the same effect in the restaurant by blanching them as normal, then reheating and finishing them in hot water laced with a little olive oil, a process that is much easier as far as I’m concerned. Still, the text book says…
We’re also supposed to tourner, decoratively cut, our mushroom caps, giving them a sort of spiral finish. Hmm, is the conclusion here: no one, not even Chef, manages to do this one convincingly. Another one to practise at home.
The rougets are decorated (one in two filets anyway) with courgette ‘scales’, courgettes sliced and placed on the fish to resemble giant, green fish scales. Not only do the scales have to stay in place while cooking on top of the filets of rougets swimming in the fumet but they also have to be cut just thick enough to be cooked in the seven minutes it takes to cook the filets – but not be so thick that they’re not slightly translucent, allowing you to see through them to the red of the fish skin. And you have to keep the filets warm while reducing the sauce, but only warm – put them somewhere too hot and they continue cooking and dry out.
We cook the rouget filets and reserve them – keep them warm enough to serve but not so warm that they continue cooking – then reduce down the cooking juices to make a very nice sauce; the whole lot gets wrapped and chilled for lunch for tomorrow’s students, lucky devils, as Filets de Rouget Sauce Bonne Femme.
And even though we seem to have done lots today we have half an hour left to discuss ‘progressions’, those sheets we need to fill out at the start of our exams showing what we plan on doing for the four and a half hours of the event in 15 minute sections. It’s quite hard to get your head around this idea to start with, but it is blindingly, obviously important – you need to have worked out at the start if something is going to take three hours to cook, rather than realising this 15 minutes before you’re due to serve it. Chef gives us some blank forms and tells us to pick a few recipes out of our text books to practise on for homework.