Chapter 29: The Exam

30: The exam

It’s been around 20 years since I had that Exam Morning feeling – nervous, trying to read notes at the last minute, a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach because you’re sure the one thing that’s definitely going to come up is the one that you didn’t revise.

I have a week – well, three days – of exams starting on Monday, when I’m normally at school. So up at 5 am this morning to leave at 6 for a 0745 exam start all the way over in Cavaillon, about 30 kilometres away. The plan was to meet Pascal at the bus station and take a bus there, but when we arrive there appear to be No Buses Today. I don’t have a car any more since I sold it to pay my school fees, so we end up taking a €40 taxi to our exam to make sure we get there in time.

And then the exam doesn’t get underway until 0830 because they were waiting for one of the examiners and two of the students. What? If you’re not there on time for your exam, everyone else will wait? What nonsense.

And I then end up waiting all morning to do my English oral exam because of that missing examiner. At midday there are three of us who haven’t been examined yet and the two examiners who did bother turning up have gone, so I wander round and find the secretary’s office. Ah, he says, kindly interrupting his chat with the missing examiners, sorry, your examiner didn’t turn up so come back next time.

Next time I say? Tomorrow?

No, he says. Next year.

Next year? I repeat, a little loudly it must be said, and then launch into a big rant. He has the good sense to look a little uncomfortable and, reluctantly, agrees with me about the injustice of the situation which, unlike him, I do not think can be resolved with a shrug of the shoulders.

I appeal to the two examiners still there and ask them to examine us. There’s only three left, I explain, it won’t take long.

Ah, says the woman reluctantly, but you have to have 20 minutes to study the text and then 20 minutes each to talk about it so that will take me an hour.

Right, I say, I’ll go first without any warm-up which means it’ll only take 40 minutes. Deal?

Reluctant deal.

So into the exam room and she gives me a text to read out loud about mountaineers leaving rubbish on Mount Everest, which I read through pretty quickly.

OK, she says a bit nervously – I’m starting to think that my French is better than her English and she may not understand everything I say in English.. Do you think people leaving rubbish lying around is much of a problem here in Provence?

I give her both barrels about litterbugs, whom I hate, and gabble on for five minutes.

Right, she says, a little dazed. That seems to be fine. You can go now.

Total time elapsed: 8 minutes. I’d better get a good mark for this.

Tuesday’s the same story. It’s the presentations of our history or geography projects. I’ve done the influence of geography on food (a subject which I now teach for a living), and the importance of the press in promoting the restaurant industry for my history project.

The order in which we’re to be examined is posted outside the exam room, and several students haven’t turned up when it’s their go – we were all supposed to be in place by 9. My turn comes up three times, only for me to be invited to wait as those who’ve turned up late can now have their turn. Same as yesterday – I think frankly, as far as I’m concerned, if you ain’t there on time for your exam then 0/20 and tough shit, organise yourself idiot. It’s a big part of cooking, you know, organisation. If you can’t organise yourself out of bed I don’t want to have you mucking about with my millefeuille d’asperge, thankyouveryymuch.

After lunch we do our written French exam and then maths. For the latter I pull out my mobile phone to use as a calculator, as we’ve been told we can. Except this examiner thinks I’m going to be using it to ask someone else the answers and tells me to put it away, so I have to do all the calculations by hand. Luckily they’re not too difficult, but still. I haven’t done a formal maths class in….hmmm…30 years now.

Wednesday and we have our practical cookery exam this morning, then the written paper this afternoon.

The practical exam is a Big Deal: Fail it, you fail the entire exam. Fail any other exam, you can make up the points exam. It’s ‘Eliminatoire’, as they say here.

We have four hours to make fricassée d’agneau hongroise (i.e. Lamb stew with paprika in it) with riz créole (rice with a few bits of pepper in it) and choux chantilly (cream buns).

I had a really panicky moment at the start when I thought I wasn’t going to have enough time. I tore, almost literally, through my lamb shoulder (thank you, Chef, for making me practise on so many at work), turned all my veg for the stock and the service, got it all squared away and the stock on the boil and then turned around to see the other students in the kitchen with me all busy deboning their lamb shoulders. Eh? I thought, what have I forgotten to do first? how come they’re only doing their lamb shoulders now when I finished mine half an hour ago? What should I have done first that they’ve all done instead?

The observing Chef is a friend of my restaurant Chef. I casually asked, when he passed to observe the state of cleanliness of my workstation, in a jokey voice ‘What are they doing that I’ve forgotten? Ha ha ha….’ It turns out that they were taking nearly an hour each to debone a single shoulder, and hadn’t even thought about veg yet. Which was a relief. ‘Don’t worry,’ said friendly Chef, ‘you’re doing fine.’

I had also thought to check my ingredients – we get given a box of what we need at the start – and I was missing an onion and the paprika so called for them, then asked for a couple of rondeaux (large, shallow saucepans with lids) for my fricassée and the rice. Two hours later Nassima from my class comes along and tries to snaffle one, on the grounds that she needs it. In fact she just picked it up from under my counter and started to walk off with it. Get yer own, I growled, think ahead. She wasn’t happy and said she’d complain to ‘someone’. Well tough shit. Get yourself together at the start of service, it’s all there in the year-long course we’ve been doing. Try paying attention, miss, and think of this as payback for all the grief you’ve cause me this year…Yes, this was the one who kept swapping name labels on dishes in the chilling room to take my dish as her own. Well, now it counts karma’s a bitch, miss.

The cooking went well, too well almost. I had lots of time to turn my vegetables nicely as required by the photos in our text books, to make some decent stock, to carefully time everything so that it came off the heat at the same time.

But in the end I had to send my stuff out first when I’d been anticipating sending it 15 minutes and three people later. Again, Someone Else wasn’t ready so Friendly Chef asked me to step up and keep the examiners happy.

So I sent it all too quickly, forgot to add the final salt to my rice and didn’t put enough sauce on the plate. And my choux buns weren’t dry enough so I should have cooked them longer. Huh. Luckily as I was carrying the choux out to table, Friendly Chef stopped me and asked, almost casually, ‘Are you planning on serving them without a dusting of icing sugar? That’s very brave of you…’ Icing sugar was listed on the recipe and, hence, a vital ingredient. Thanks again, Chef.

Still. Eh?

And then I got Christian Etienne as my Marketing Presentation chef. He knows and dislikes my restaurant chef – they’re rivals in Avignon – and when he learned where I’d been working all year immediately wrote down my mark even before I’d started my Marketing spiel. It was my lowest score in the entire exam, 12/20 – my average was 16.5.

We had lunch in the school canteen in Cavaillon and then did the written paper this afternoon. It was harder than I thought, demanding a greater knowledge of traditional Escoffier-type dishes than I have. I said that the mystery missing ingredient in the Sole Dieppoise recipe was fumet de poisson (it’s cream), but did remember that it takes 20 minutes to cook a fumet (not 2 hours as everyone else told me afterwards).

I think I’ve passed, and I’m certainly not going to do it again if I haven’t. I’ll just lie instead and say I passed, it’s easier and cheaper and I’ve never been asked to produce an exam certificate in my life.

Restaurant and School chefs both tell me later that they’re sure I’ve passed, based on what they’ve ‘heard’ from the examiners (Avignon is a small town when it comes to chefs), but more than that I don’t know.

Three weeks until the results.

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