Today’s the day. After dreaming of this opportunity for years, I can’t believe it’s here. 15 years ago I was able to attend a demonstration at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, but could not do the practical. I was thrilled for that opportunity, but now I’m in the kitchen as a student. I will be here for the next nine months, four days a week.
The practical room is large and rectangular. The room can hold 16 students – eight on each side. We have 12 in this class, leaving a few stations unattended. Every student has an assigned section about 2.5 feet wide. My pots and bowls are under my partner’s station, and under mine are our two refrigerators. Above me are the trays, strainers, labels, and tongs. There’s a spot to attach my notes to the wall in front of me, and room to place my knife kit on the very top shelf. We each get one burner with a gas stove underneath and a quarter of a hotplate. With this, we will produce the magic of French cooking.
My station is number 2. I’m an easy glance from Chef’s station, and he can easily see everything that’s on my burner and my hotplate.
Today’s lesson is Potage Cultivateur, or farmer’s soup. It’s simply broth with cut veg. This should be easy–if you know the metric system. My American education was very strict in making sure that we did not learn metric. When you convert 3mm and 5mm to American measurements, they both convert to 1/4 inch. But, as I have just learned, a 3mm cut is NOT a 5mm cut. There is a difference, and I’m told that my customers will not be pleased with “irregular cuts.” So I begin today’s practical with all my knives, peeler, scraper, and my 16 year old son’s ruler.
Soon I’m in the flow of the program. I’m finding my tools, following my recipe, and feeling very much in the zone. It’s one of those moments when all feels right with the world. I have the item I’m working on at my left side and the finished product on my right. My tray on the right is holding the precisely-cut vegetables, some of which have been cut paysanne (5mm X 5 mm X 1mm) and are ready to cook. It’s a dream come true. The aroma of the simmering broth fills up the room. Everyone seems calm and in control of the situation.
I am too, until I realize at the end that I forgot to add the leeks. If I add them now, all the other veg will be overcooked. If I don’t put them in, the soup will lack depth. I ask Chef what I should do, hoping to get some magical technique to redeem my soup. All I get is a shrug and a half-sympathetic grin. So, I take things into my own hands. I sauté the leeks, trying hard not to brown them, and add them to my soup. I wonder if this is breaking the “Oui Chef” code, or if being flexible will be rewarded. In the end, what’s important is that the soup tastes good. Thankfully I also had forgotten about the peas sitting in the fridge, so at least they won’t be overcooked!
Now it’s time to present. Every day, by a designated time, we are to present our finished product to Chef. He will examine it, taste it, give corrections and compliments (if warranted), and finally grade it. When Chef tasted my soup, he said the seasoning was good, the green beans had been overcooked, the vegetables were cut irregularly, and good choice on the leek sauté. So there’s the answer: bring the customer good-tasting food!
Chef Gilles’ Potage Cultivateur
My Potage Cultivateur