Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Graduation: A Few Words of Thanks

Friends:  Friday night was graduation at the National Gallery of Canada.  I had an amazing evening meeting the families and friends of my classmates, and sharing more than a few hugs.  And, oh yeah... a jacket with my name on it and a silver medal!
What’s more is that I had the special honour of speaking on behalf of the students in front of a few hundred invited guests.  While that might seem like a task with a bit of pressure attached, it was actually rather easy, especially after having written this blog for the last number of months. I knew what I wanted to say and what needed to be said.
But before I tell you what I said, I think it’s time to put some names to the talented and remarkable people you have thus far known only as "the Chefs".  You can check out their rather impressive biographies here.
Chef Gilles (aka Chef 1).  Chef Gilles was a Chef instructor at the school when I did Basic Cuisine more than two years ago, and was the instructor for the first part of Intermediate Cuisine. I may be the only person in the history of Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa who overseasoned something for his palate. A sidelong stare over his glasses was enough for me to know that my dish wasn’t quite what he expected of me.
Chef Didier (aka Chef 2).  I can’t say enough good things about Chef Didier. While he sometimes struggled to explain things in English, he was a master of showing us what to do.  I never had trouble getting up early in the morning for one of Chef Didier’s classes because I knew I was going to learn something worthwhile. A pat on the back or “congratulations!” from Chef Didier was enough to make my day.
Chef Frédéric (aka Chef 3).  That thing on your plate you wished would disappear?  Chef Frédéric  would find it, but he would also respect you if you worked hard, asked smart questions, and tried to do better. I soon came to realize that it wasn’t that hard to get a smile out of the Chef: a self-deprecating or slightly salty joke could get him laughing nearly every time.
So here’s what I had to say.  I think I summed it up pretty well.

Good evening Chefs, family, friends, staff, and most of all, fellow graduates!

Well, we did it, didn’t we!?

Over the last three months, six months, nine months, or even longer, we’ve all been on a journey  - a journey of learning the ins-and-outs of cuisine and pastry, but also a journey of learning about ourselves.  Each of us has tested our skills, our memories, and on more than a few occasions our tolerance for pain, exhaustion, and criticism.

We’ve burned things (including ourselves!) and dropped things.  We’ve cut ourselves, had meringues fail. We’ve underseasoned, and overseasoned.  We’ve had sauces break and made grainy caramel.  And in my case, on one rather notable occasion, I served duck that was, ummm… so raw it was still quacking.  Sorry about that Chef Frédéric!  I’ll remember – it's not duck tartare!

But we’ve also had moments when we walked out of a practical class or a workshop tired but happy – maybe because of a really beautiful cake or an almost perfect dish. Or maybe because Chef Didier looked at our plate and said “C’est trés joli!”

Or maybe it was because we surprised ourselves with what we had learned and how far we’d come.

And that learning is thanks to a special group of people – our Chefs.

Without the Chefs, Le Cordon Bleu would not be Le Cordon Bleu.  Their collective talent, experience, and skill as teachers is what got us here today.

In particular, I’d like to thank three of the Chefs. 

Chef Gilles – Thank you for welcoming me back to LCB after a long absence.  Thank you for your honest and fair comments about my work, and for your sly sense of humour.  I swear I will hear you shouting “Allez allez allez!” whenever I get in the weeds.

Chef Frédéric – Coming right from the industry, you brought a fresh perspective to our class.  You beat us up a little at first (I don’t think any of us will ever forget those quails!), but we quickly figured out that you meant well, and wanted us to be ready for what awaits us after graduation – timing and details are important! A compliment from you about our plates wasn’t always easy to get, but when we got one, we knew we had truly earned it.

Chef Didier –  Je peux pas vous remercier assez pour tous j’ai appris chez Cuisine Superieure.  Vous avez apporté si tant d’experience, connaissance et de joie à nos classes.  Vous nous avez enseigné si tant de choses qui peu transformer une bonne assiette à une magnifique assiette!  J’ai seulement le regret que je ne puisse pas vous cotoyer plus longetemps et apprendre d’avantage!

And to the other Chefs – Chef Phillippe, Chef Armando in the production kitchen, Chef Yannick in the Bistro, and pastry Chefs Hervé, Jocelyn, Eric and Arnaud – thank you for being excellent resources.  We never felt we couldn’t ask you questions (even dumb ones!) and for helping to make our experience that much better.

And that’s the key to the Cordon Bleu experience – we have amazing Chefs who want to teach us everything they know – and we need only ask.  We have the opportunity to learn that goes far beyond the demos, the practicals and the workshops.  We have hours in the production kitchen were we might be asked to do something we’ve never done.  We get to help a Chef with a demo, or assist with a short course (an experience I highly recommend, by the way!).  We get a chance to work in the kitchen in the Bistro and in the dining room.  These are great opportunities – a wise person takes advantage of them because you always learn something new.

And one last thought – I started at Le Cordon Bleu two and a half years ago doing the Basic Intensive Cuisine program.  I never intended to come back for Intermediate, let alone Superior.  But I did notice something interesting had happened. When I’d go for a job interview, the first question in nearly all cases wasn’t my qualifications for the completely non-food related job, it was: Wow… you went to Le Cordon Bleu?  Tell me about it! When friends would introduce me to new people they would say:  This is Sarah, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu.  People ask because they know the Cordon Bleu means something special. It means that regardless of whether you go forward into a career in the industry, or if today is the end of the experience for you, you have done something very special.  And it means we all have a whole lot to live up to.

So, on behalf of all the students, I thank Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa, the Chefs, and our friends and families.  We could not have done it without you.

Let’s wrap this up and get some champagne, shall we?  We have some celebrating to do!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Sweet Taste of Success

Friends:  A little earlier this afternoon I found out that I passed my final exam!

 <insert rockstar howl here!>

Yesterday's exam was a pressure cooker.  Three and a quarter hours to plate appetizers and mains for two doesn't sound that hard, but with an original menu, a crowded kitchen, mandatory ingredients and techniques and the accumulated pressure, it was hard.  Very hard.

When I submitted my recipes nearly two weeks ago, I was pretty confident that I'd chosen well - the ingredients, while not my favourites, were easy enough, and I was sure that I knew my techniques well enough that it would be fine.

On my menu:  salmon and shrimp mousse napoleon with wilted spinach, sauce hollandaise and red pepper sauce.   A replay on something similar I had done on the white box exercise a few weeks ago.  The main was chicken ballotine stuffed with chicken liver farce a gratin with apple and shiitake mushrooms, herbed spaetzle, beet puree, a "breadstick" made with pate a choux, and a little salad of parsley and yellow summer squash with mushroom infused oil.  Nothing difficult about any of these techniques.

I had nearly two weeks to fuss with my recipes and did I ever!  I timed things, second-guessed things, re-ordered everything.  While I was nervous, I was nowhere as freaked out as I was before the Intermediate exam where I had to have memorized nearly a dozen dishes from class.  This was my stuff - what could go wrong?

Well.... a lot, actually.

The other group of Superior students did their exam on Monday afternoon, and by most accounts it was a bit of a shit show.  Pots on fire, a shattered blender, and a good deal of angst.  The problem, as I came to understand it, is that most people spent too much time on their appetizers, and then scrambled to finish their mains in the remaining time.  And when each minute late costs you two percent of your exam mark, this is a very bad thing.

But even with that knowledge under my hat I still had similar problems on the exam.  By luck of the draw I was cursed with one of the most annoying stations in the kitchen - the one where I would have to share an oven with someone, where I would have to bump someone out of the way each time I wanted to open my fridge, and where I was in the furthest possible place from a sink, a garbage can, the dishpit, and any shared tools.

When I finally walked into the room on Tuesday afternoon I was anxious, but optimistic. The first half an hour passed in a flash, with a little humour even.

I had packed every tool I could think of from my kitchen that might help me: grater, ramekins, parchment paper, plastic wrap, etc.  Chef 3 was slightly amused.

"Did you bring your entire kitchen with you Sarah?"

"Yes I did Chef!"

The rest of the exam was a blur.  I tried to keep focussed on making sure the mise en place was coming along for the main even though I had to get the appetizer done first.  I knew that if I didn't have my chicken ballotine poached and resting by the time the appetizer was on the plate, I would be screwed.  And I kept to that schedule, and it seemed to be working.

Yikes - the rest of my main plate?  The spaetzle, beet puree, etc?  I didn't keep on top of those as well as I should have. I started to freak out a little in the last half hour.

Somehow, I got it all on the plate.  It didn't exactly look the way I had envisioned and I cut more than a few corners.  I might have been one or two minutes late plating my main, but I'm really not sure.  But food was on plates, I think it was edible, and I was exhausted.

And then the waiting began.  In typical Cordon Bleu style, we had to wait for an email from the school telling us we passed.  A phone call was a bad thing.  I slept reasonably well last night (though I did wake up at 4:30 in the morning after a freaky dream about carrots), but I started driving myself quietly crazy by mid-morning.

Shortly after noon I had to get out of the house before I started chewing the furniture, so I set about doing some busywork errands like picking up cleaning supplies from Canadian Tire and some groceries at the store nearby.

It was while I was in the grocery store that I got the email.  I think I let out a sound somewhere between a primal scream and a gagging noise and nearly walked into a display of dried pasta.  I PASSED!

Since then I have been absolutely overwhelmed by all the congratulations.  I called and texted a few of my closest friends and family right away, but I let most other people know via that very 21st century tool: Facebook.  Since then I have had more than 50 "Likes" and lots of comments from friends all over the world, many of whom I never knew were interested in my little adventure.  I'm so grateful and so very happy.

There's a whole lot more to say, but I'll save it for a few days.  Stay tuned... it's not over!

Monday, 10 June 2013

The Day Before

So here I am.... the day before my final exam.

I've spent the better part of the last week practicing my exam dishes and quietly freaking out.  I'm usually pretty calm under pressure, but there is nothing quite like the formality of an exam to get the adrenaline going.

I've made all the components of my dishes several times. I've timed everything, re-ordered my mise en place several times, and looked for every shortcut possible.  I've made part of my dishes without measuring, just to see what happens.  I've tried shaving time off the complicated parts, just to see what might be the worst case scenario if I get in the weeds.

And, all things considered, it's been pretty good.

My uniform is washed, starched, pressed, and in my locker at school.  My tools are all sparkling clean, my knives sharp.  I'm not sure I can do anything more except get a good night's sleep tonight and try to remind myself of a few important truths:

1. These are my dishes.  I created them because they work for me and I know what I'm doing.

2. I'm not going to forget everything I've learned on one day.  All the practice and good instincts will help me if things start going wrong.

3. It's just a test.  If I can do as well as I do on most practicals I'll be fine.

Exam starts just after 1:30PM tomorrow.  Wish me luck.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Point of Nori-Turn

Today was lesson 19 of 19 - the last demonstration and practical of the Superior term.  Time for a little more fun, in this case with sushi and vegetable carving.

Sushi?  At Le Cordon Bleu?  Indeed!  We are fortunate to have among the Chefs at LCB a master of sushi, so why not, eh? For our purposes today, I’m calling him Chef 6.  Chef 6 is generally known at the school as the master of the production kitchen.  While much of his work involves making sure the school is properly stocked for our classes and managing the folks making the daily staff meals, he steps out of that job to teach classes in sushi, vegetable carving, ice carving, and on more than a few occasions to create amazing sculptures for special events. 

Just last week I was messing around in the production kitchen with one of the staff trying to iron out the details for my Black Box exam, and I had the privilege of watching him prepare some sculptures for the school open house that weekend, part of the Ottawa “Doors Open” event. 

“So Chef, after the class next week I’ll be able to carve just like you?”

<crickets chirping>

“Of course.”

Yeah…. Right.

When I spent some time in Thailand a few years ago I took a short class in fruit and vegetable carving.  It was a one-on-one thing and, I must admit, I was kind of all thumbs at it, even with lots of help.  But it’s a beautiful art, one that I wish I had more time to study, so I’ve been looking forward to his class all term.  I even went to the expense of picking up a carving tools kit last weekend and proceeded to stab myself several times trying to practice at home.  Some interesting new wounds, but no greater insight.

So bright and early this morning our class enjoyed a demonstration of rolling maki-sushi and carving.  Chef 6 is clearly a master and makes it look easy.  I mean, this is what he came up with in about three hours.  Nice lunch, eh?

I took notes and made little diagrams to help me in the afternoon practical, but I have to admit I gave up when it came to the turnip swan.  Clearly a hands-on only thing… pointless to try to describe it.

The practical class itself was a lot of fun.  No pressure, and lots of time to make mistakes.  My partner and I actually came up with a pretty decent little sculpture in a little over two hours.  I think a little of my previous knowledge came in a bit handy, and Chef 6’s techniques were a LOT  easier than what I had learned before.  And I only punctured my thumb once!

But now that this class is over, we have just one more workshop, then a few days to practice and study for our final exam.  I submitted my recipes last week right before the deadline, and as of now have tested most of the components/techniques at least once.  I’ll certainly be making them several times more, and will do at least one “stopwatch” practice before the exam next Tuesday afternoon.

And, true to my usual form, the pre-exam stress is kicking in, only much earlier this time.  The crazy dreams have  started too – last night a weird, disjointed thing about one of the Chefs teaching me to ski on an icy hill (I do know how to ski, but in the dream it seems I had forgotten) and somehow ending up with a basket on exam day that contained none of my requested ingredients.  But you know what was in the basket in my dream?  Bubblegum.  I’m going to take that as a good omen!

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Epic Meal Time: Cordon Bleu Style

While we're all stressing out over the recipes for our Black Box exam, we still have class to attend.

Today was a seminar on "Cuisine D'Assemblage"  (Kitchen Assembly), essentially an overview of the categories of preserved, frozen, pre-made and processed items available to the modern kitchen.  While we've used fairly few processed items here at school (with the occasional exception of things like tomato paste and frozen pastry), most kitchens use at least some pre-made items.  And, to be honest, the time savings and quality difference sometimes justifies using preserved or pre-made.  I, for one, will happily take excellent San Marzano canned tomatoes over the sad, underripe fresh tomatoes we get here in Ottawa most of the year.

That said, Chef 1 decided to have a little fun with us.  He handed the class a box of horrible processed junk food - Oreo cookies, Kraft Dinner (Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to you Americans!), canned cocktail sausages, corned beef, powdered poutine gravy.... I mean, look at this shit.....

Then he set us loose on the kitchen to come up with a few dishes using this garbage.  I'm sure the exercise was more for fun than anything because we ended up with nearly 20 students crowded into the one person demo kitchen.  Chaos ensued, but in a good way.

My idea?  Croquettes of Kraft Dinner (tightened with béchamel), with canned cocktail sausage and a tortilla chip breading.  Found some black truffle oil in the cupboard and threw a bit of that in for giggles. Haute cuisine, oui?

Verdict?  Tasted um... processed.  Gee really?  I thought something tasted a little off with the cheese powder anyway, and Chef 1 assured me that the box might have been sitting around for a year or two.  Yuck....

That said, I think it was better than the corned beef and spinach dip pasta that another group thoughtfully browned under the salamander, as if that would make it better.  It looked a little (and I imagine tasted a little) like cheap dog food.

So a little fun to break the tension as we get our recipes together for our final exam.  I think I know what I'm going to do now - just a matter of getting it on paper and handing it in tomorrow.  Then two weeks to practice, pray and panic.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Opening the Black Box (Literally and Figuratively)

Well, the calm sure didn't last long!

Late yesterday afternoon the ingredient list for our Black Box Exam landed with a crash in my inbox.  I nearly fell out of my chair - I wasn't expecting this!  According the original term schedule (the one that's still posted in the student lounge, by the way!) we were supposed to receive the list on May 31. But now we have to create our menu, recipes and bon d'economat by this Thursday at 3:30 PM. 

Holy. Shit.

The list itself (shown below) is actually pretty good. Mandatory ingredients are 100g of chicken liver, 200g of shiitake mushrooms, 2 chicken legs, 150g of shrimp, and 50ml of calvados.  Three techniques (of which I must pick at least two) are farce a gratin, farce fine, and hollandaise.  Theme?  Business menu for two.

The best part?  No rack of anything to debone, no artichokes (YAY!) and lots of colorful produce available - spinach, red peppers, apples, beet root, carrots, etc.

My mind immediately jumped into overdrive and started spraying shitty ideas all over the place like out-of-control food poisoning. I had to give myself a time-out to get my focus back.

Once my reason returned I reminded myself of the lessons from the White Box that I just yesterday afternoon wrote about on this blog - maximize the easy points, focus on technique not ingredients, focus on my strengths, and keep in mind that mise-en-place is what's going to make or break me.

Do I have it figured out yet?  No way.  I'm going to try to use all three techniques if I can, and make sure I've got more color on my plates this time.  I'd like to avoid stuffing the chicken legs with a liver farce a gratin if I can avoid it (because that's so obvious that it's what EVERYONE is going to do) and I know I'm going to need to choose either the salmon or the clams to supplement the small amount of shrimp, and if I want to have a farce fine, it's going to have to be with the seafood.  And then I need to make sure I'm using some of the other techniques that Chef 2 has been showing us this term as my side dishes - things with vegetables, starches, etc.  And given that there will be next to no bones and trimmings and there is no veal or chicken stock on the list, my sauces are going to have to come from somewhere else - the hollandaise is a gimme with the seafood, but for the chicken?  Hmmmmm...

While this all still sounds like drivel, it's at least focussed drivel and proof that that other important "Black Box" (my mind) is working properly.  I'm hoping I can get through my class this evening, come up with a draft menu before bed, sleep on it, and then pull it all together tomorrow afternoon after class.

Wish me luck because it all comes down to this!

Monday, 27 May 2013

Sarah Had A Little Lamb (and A LOT of Artichokes!)

A few of my readers have asked me why I’ve taken so long to write about last week’s “White Box” workshop, the dry-run for our upcoming exam.  Truth is, I’ve been struggling with a little writer’s block again and I needed a few days to figure out exactly what I wanted to say about it.

The White Box followed the same format and process as the upcoming exam.  We were given a theme (in this case “Spring Dinner for Two”), a list of three techniques from which we must choose at least two (sauce hollandaise or a derivative, farce fine, and turned vegetables), a list of mandatory ingredients (150g of salmon, 1 orange, 100g of goat cheese, and 5 artichokes), and a list of optional ingredients.  About 72 hours to come up with a menu, bon d’economat, and recipes, and then a week to panic.  Pretty straight forward, eh?

Once I got the list of ingredients and the theme, a few things jumped out at me right away.  First, 150g isn’t much salmon.   It’s enough for an appetizer for two, maybe. That meant that I was going to need to grab at least one of the two other proteins (scallops and rack of lamb) listed in the optional ingredients.  Then the little matter of five (!) artichokes.  Artichokes are a pain in the ass and five is a weird number when making two plates.  Arrrgggggh…….

 A short chat with my friend and mentor The Stig and I was in a much better mood.  He helped me come up with a plan that would use all three techniques, make use of that odd numbered artichoke, and be a little more creative than the obvious things like stuffed lamb chops. I can’t even begin to explain how grateful I was to have a plan so quickly and to then have the time to spend on the bon d’economat and recipes – more than a few people in my class stayed up all night to get theirs done and I (for a change) slept soundly.

So my menu:  Appetizer of salmon mousse napoleon, seared scallop, wilted spinach and orange and herb hollandaise.  Main of lamb chops with goat cheese crust and duxelle of oyster mushrooms, spaetzle, glazed turnips and braised artichokes.  And that fifth artichoke?  Blended into the spaetzle to make it “disappear”.  Easy, right?

The morning of the workshop (a week later), I was up at the crack of dawn.  I had to be in a little early anyway since it was again my turn to be the class sous-chef.  Two Turkish coffees and a breakfast of leftover pheasant had me in a sparkling mood.  Set up for the class was a little more chaotic than usual since every student was getting a slightly different basket based on their submitted recipes.

And as I mentioned in my previous post we had Chef 3 for this workshop.  Chef 3 hadn’t seen any of us cook since the end of Intermediate in mid-March, so the workshop wasn’t just a dry-run for the exam, it was an opportunity to find out if we’d actually learned anything this term.  No pressure!

I was pretty calm the first part of the workshop.  Got my salmon mousse (farce fine) put together quickly, baked the phyllo pastry for the napoleon (without burning it!) and got started on the mise en place for my main, including turning all those damned artichokes.  The only thing that went wrong?  My hollandaise broke about a minute before I needed it on the plate.  Fuck.  I grabbed a bowl, some cold water and whisked for dear life.  It came back to life just in the nick of time.


Chef 3 seemed fairly pleased with my plates.  A little suggestion or two on plating but nothing serious.  I was in a pretty good mood and decided get a smile out of him.

“Chef, do I get extra points for my hollandaise if it broke but I saved it?”

Chef 3 stared at me blankly for about two seconds and then started to laugh.

“Unfortunately no, Sarah!”

Once everyone had plated their appetizers, Chef 3 had us tidy up and sent us on a half hour long break.  I had managed to get some of my mise en place done for my main, but not all of it.  About 20 minutes into the break I started freaking out a little, realizing that I had A LOT of work to do.

The second part of the workshop was, for me, an exercise in controlling panic.  I made a hash of butchering the lamb – something that isn’t my strong suit anyway, but doing it under a time crunch was awful.  I hacked away at it and got it done, but it was less than pretty.  My turned turnips were also a little less than pretty, but at least I didn’t burn them.  I don’t even want to discuss my sauce, except to say that I can do a whole lot better than what ended up on the plate.


The verdict?  Artichokes were lukewarm, at best.  Not the prettiest or most colourful plate (no kidding, eh?), but the lamb was properly cooked and things seemed to taste okay.  Honestly, I was just happy that I managed to get all the elements of my dish on the plate.  I wasn’t thrilled, but it was on time and edible.

The lessons from this for my upcoming exam?

1.       Maximize the “easy” points.  The submitted menu, bon d’economat, and recipes are worth a significant piece of the mark, so it’s worth spending the time to get these right and presentable.  I think I did pretty well on this part.

2.       Focus on technique rather than the ingredients. The ingredients may not be sexy, but that doesn’t mean the plate can’t be interesting with good use of technique.

3.        Focus on the things I know how to do well, and practice the things I don’t. What I did to that lamb was less than dignified and messed up my timing.  No excuse for that.

4.       MISE EN PLACE!!!!!!!!

So another week of class ahead.  We won’t have the list of ingredients or the theme of our final exam for a few days yet so there isn’t much planning I can do, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it constantly.

I can’t believe how time has flown.