Chapter 26: Week 24: A white exam

More omelets this morning, followed by an ‘examen blanc’ this afternoon. ‘Blanc’ as in ‘pretend’ – so a ‘mariage blanc’ is a fake marriage undertaken for the purposes of gaining French citizenship, a ‘nuit blanc’ is a sleepless night and so on.

The omelets are interesting because we get to use poitrine salée, salted pork belly or streaky bacon, as we say in English. The French have a cut of cured pork called ‘bacon’ which isn’t bacon at all; it’s more like dried ham, similar to but drier than prosciutto or Parma. Bacon as in sandwiches can be bought but is usually sliced so thinly and so filled with water that if you try to fry it you end up with shoe lace-sized strips of tastelessness.

In the restaurant, and at school today, we’re provided with 30 cm square chunks of salted pork belly. At the restaurant we cut it up to make lardons, bacon bits, so I’ve done this lesson already – as so often now, my restaurant chef prepares me at work the week before school by putting items on the weekly menu or staff meal list so I can practise beforehand. So I’ve already skinned and chopped up my fair share of poitrines this week, and have learned how to remove the skin pretty efficiently with my new désosseur, my deboning knife.

I now own several knives, in fact; the désosseur, a 25 cm chef’s knife – both Spanish Arcos brand knives with which I’m very pleased indeed. There’s a good Coutellerie, a knife shop in Avignon just round the corner from Les Halles indoor market and the coutellier gives sensible advice and doesn’t simply recommend that you buy the most expensive knives he sells. I explained that I was starting at cookery school and wanted something durable, decent and above all cheap and he showed me the Arcos range. Spanish steel is, he says, very good quality, plenty of carbon to make sharpening easier but not so much that the blades rust. So Arcos it is.

I’m less pleased with the Sabatier filet de sole knife I picked up in Metro while shopping with Chef one day. Sabatier has a good reputation, in the UK anyway, but in fact there are different grades of knife made by different branches of the Sabatier family. The filleting knife I bought simply won’t keep an edge, even with enthusiastic use of a good steel (‘fusil’ in French, the same word for rifle – it comes from the name for the ramrod used in the past to ram gunpowder and bullets into muzzle-loading guns) so I’m going to buy a new one one of these days.

All of which is academic because, even though I knew I’d be skinning pork belly this morning and doing an exam this afternoon, I’ve left all my knives at home. Duh. I realised quite early on during the day – when I started setting up on my workstation, in fact – and initially resolved to catch the bus home to pick them up. But then I’d miss the morning, so borrowed knives here and there and ended up with enough blunt objects to keep me going. Why don’t people sharpen their knives? I have friends in the UK who bought a hugely expensive set of foreign knives – German, Swiss, Japanese, whatever – that have never been sharpened. I scared them by sawing at my wrist with the unsharp edge once, wondering how on earth I was going to kill myself with something so blunt.

Anyway. Omelets and lunch out of the way it’s exam time. Chicken chasseur, tarte fine aux pommes – chicken in mushroom sauce and posh apple tart. Which calls for a decent-sized knife to cut the chicken into portions before frying it off, a sharp knife to slice mushrooms and the same sharp knife to peel and then thinly slice the apples. Oops.

But I get through on borrowed knives and turn in my dishes. The format of the afternoon is similar to how our proper exam will run later this year: we’re given the recipes and a box of ingredients and told to get on with it, and are judged on lots of criteria. ‘Travail propre’ – work clean – is a big credo instilled in me by both my current chefs, and it’s something for which you can easily lose marks in the exam itself so I spend a fair amount of time just making sure my work surfaces are clean and tidy.

We also get judged on our planning and the order in which we do things – so don’t start cutting up the meat, then do the apples, then back to the meat, then the veg. Do it all in a sensible order. But what is the correct order? We all spend the first few minutes of the exam pretending to write out a menu plan of what order things need to be done, but in reality we’re all furtively looking around wondering what everyone else will do.

I start by cutting up my chicken and frying it off, and cutting up my veg while that’s happening. But when I look around about half the class are making their pastry first for their apple tart. Erk! Should I have done that first? Me and the others who’ve commenced with the chicken are obviously having doubts – as are those doing the pastry first.

I plunge on with my plan, getting my chicken and veg fried off and into a casserole dish ready for the oven, then make my pastry and, while it’s blind baking, cut up my apples. Which I now see could be the wrong order – pastry, apples, veg, meat would be a more intelligent use of my cutting board. But then I wouldn’t be able to fry off my chicken while cutting up my veg.

All this, I have come to realise, is a large part of what working in a professional kitchen is all about: planning, planning, planning. Checking through your ingredients box while reading the recipe to make sure you have everything you need, working out the most sensible order in which to cook things, making sure the cooking order gets everything onto the plate at the same time without keeping the vegetables cooked and waiting for the meat to arrive. I want it to be intuitive, but it’s not, certainly not at the start anyway.

I have most trouble with the tarte fine – the apples should be sliced millimetre-thin and laid in pleasing circles on the surface of the tart, but slicing millimetre thin isn’t easy at the best of times. It’s less easy with a blunt, borrowed knife. Talk about failure of planning! Argh! But then I look around and see that some of my classmates aren’t even trying to slice their apples thinly, they’re just cutting their apples into eights. Man, does that look ugly, by comparison my tart is a work of art.

After four hours of cooking we have 30 minutes to present a plate for each course, with points awarded for similarity to the photograph of the plate in our official text book. Which, of course, we’re not allowed to consult.

So I get the sauce wrong by putting it both on and around the meat, my carrots are turned wrong – I’ve tried to be a smart arse and done the cut we use in the restaurant rather than the official one – and am reduced a further point by putting a sprig of parsley on top. Pretty? Not sanctioned.

I end up with 13 – out of 20. For incomprehensible reasons the French almost always mark out of 20 rather than giving a percentage. Recently a stagiaire at the restaurant asked me what sort of mark Chef would give him at the end of his stage with us. “Four or five,” I replied. “Ah,”, he said, “here in France we mark out of 20, not 10.” “Oh,” I said, “I was marking out of 100.” Poor lamb, he believed me too. Stagiaires are so gullible.

So. 65%. Not very good, I think, and only third-best in class. Then Chef spoils it all by saying that he’s marked us more severely than we would be marked in a proper exam. And then telling me that he’s marked me even more severely than the others because ‘I expect more from those like you who are capable of doing the best work’. Right. So that’d be, what, a 19 or 20 out of 20 in my real exam then? Neat. This may not be the effect he was trying to achieve.

As for the correct order in which to do things, he’s cool with starting with either the pastry or the meat. The idea is to make us think about doing things logically and to have reasoned our way through why we’re doing them like that, not to say that there is a right and wrong order. Although he himself would have started with the pastry, he says.

Harumph.

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