Chapter 28: Week 26: Last day at school

Last day at school today. We cook poulet chasseur, chicken in mushroom, tomato and wine sauce, pommes au four (roast potatoes) this morning and do it without having to be told much. This afternoon we spend going over a few basic techniques, ideas and problems to revise for our exam next week. Chef says he’s pleased with us and doesn’t think anyone will fail. I’m nervous, not because I think I’ll fail but because I don’t think I’ll succeed well, which I want to do both for him and for Jean-Remi my restaurant chef.

I have mixed feelings about the year; I’m very glad I went, but the whole process has literally worn me down to a state of permanent and total exhaustion. I’d originally intended to go on and do a second year straight away in Patisserie or Traiteur, but (a) I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough to be a patissier and (b) sod that for a way to kill yourself, Armagnac is much more fun.

Really, 10 months of having just one day of rest a week is not recommended, don’t try this at home. Tonight I’ve just got back from school half an hour early and, unlike last week, don’t have to go to work. Last week I got only Thursday off and spent all that writing two ‘dossiers’ – reports for my exams. And not cooking exams either, I have to do French, Maths, Physics, Geography and, best of all, English. My first exam, in fact, next Monday – a 20 minute English oral exam. I shall be complaining if I don’t get 20/20.

So, what next?

Well, Les Agassins (not the Chef, the management) are buggering me about this year over contracts and it looks like I simply won’t be able to work there after September for financial reasons (i.e. they won’t pay me). Much as I’d love to stay, it’s really time to move on. I don’t want to let Chef down now so I think I’m going to do my very, very best to finish the season unless something super-startling turns up.

Then my plan is to find something, anything to do until the winter and then go and work in the Alps for the season there. Dunno if I want to do a restaurant or be a Chalet cook-and-maid. The latter attracts me more but I would probably learn more doing the former. We’ll see.

Still, back in the restaurant I’m now a proper cook. Chef de partie des entrées, it says on the newest line of my CV. I’ve even managed to persuade Chef to put something on the menu – smoked quail eggs. OK, it’s only one item in a dish with a number of other ingredients, but hey, you have to start somewhere. We smoke the eggs ourselves and serve two (one cut into quarters, the other plopped inside the star-shape created) in a nest of alfalfa sprouts surrounded by ‘waves’ of smoked salmon. Looks very pretty, the nest presentation was my idea, too.

Yesterday we did 70 covers for lunch, me, Fabien – the new Second de Cuisine – and Carole, the stagiaire patissier who, for once, is within simmering distance of competent. It was Chef’s half-day off (he chooses carefully) and I’m proud to have gotten through it without forgetting or f-ing up anything. The waiters, on the other hand, were all over the place – especially when the group of 13 from Radio France (who should have sat down to eat at 12h30 but who arrived at 13h30) announced that they were going to be eating outside, necessitating 20 minutes of table and cutlery moving. A-holes, I didn’t even send out their starters until gone 2 o’clock.

Tonight was even worse. Everyone turned up at half past seven, when they normally arrive between 8 and 9 in discrete lumps. I was in the middle of farting about with my Trilogies (dried tomato, goat cheese and aubergine caviar in layers) and hadn’t even put my amuse bouches in place.

Luckily Chef was there to jump in and do my orders for me and he managed to do just about everything while I was just cutting up tuna for six tartares. Embarrassing and an indication of just how much I have to learn still, notably Get Your Arse In Gear.

If it had been the plonge I wouldn’t have had a problem, partly because the mise en place is easy (Squeezy bottle full of washing up liquid? I’m good to go!) and partly because, having done it for 18 months, I know how to do it quickly. I’ve been in the kitchen doing services less than 18 days, so that’s a good excuse. Reason. Whatever.

Still, it felt shitty not keeping up. I later learn that 45 covers last night didn’t leave until 4 am in the morning, inconsiderate a-holes. It was a wedding party, so in France 4 am is a pretty early finish. This is why I’m glad I’m not a waiter. Still, I’ve learned the very hard way that getting my mise en place in place BEFORE service starts works well, along with putting all the amuse bouches onto dishes before service starts. That way I can keep up with the flow of orders, I think.

Lunch is easier as the menu has only two starters – evenings there are up to six starters, depending on what kinds of guests we have in the hotel, which can go out as Menu items (miserly portions) or à  la carte (splendiferously generous portions).

Then again, I managed to embed a box containing litre of cream inside €180′s worth of foie gras tonight (although it was Chef’s fault), so perhaps I should shut up.

School is only the beginning; I’ve had a great opportunity and feel in turns over-confident and full of self-doubt. I see what I can do compared to some of my classmates and I’m clearly better than them; then my chef takes over my station and does in five minutes what I’ve failed to do in half an hour. And he does it better. That level of competence can only come with experience and I’d like to gain it here but know I won’t.


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