The Morning Routine
The next morning is where the discipline is really important. Each morning I get up at 5:00 and either go for a jog or review my notes. During the morning is my last chance to prep for the day. I make sure each page is in a plastic sheet cover (to prevent greasy fingerprint marks) and collect my recipes for the afternoon demonstration. I pack my uniform, double-check that I have all my notes, and make a snack to take with me. I also get to see each of my children and my husband before they go off to school and work. My children leave first because they have an hour bus ride to their American High School. Next is my husband who has a short 20-minute subway ride to work. I leave shortly thereafter for my 15-minute bike commute to school. I enjoy this ride, for it’s a wonderful time to clear my head before the kitchen work begins.
The Kitchen Practical
Class starts at 8:30, but I am not permitted into the kitchen until 8:25. Like the demonstration class, I line up with my fellow students five minutes before, our uniforms crisp and our tool kits ready. The Chef in the practical room may not be the same one who gave the demonstration yesterday. Once he opens to doors and I arrive inside, every second counts. Immediately, I proceed to my assigned section and get out my own knives and tools from my tool kits. We are not permitted to bring or use tools that are not supplied by Le Cordon Bleu.
There’s a place to attach my notes to the wall with magnets above my work station, which is about two feet wide and two feet deep. There is a row of eight work stations on each side of the room with an ice maker dividing them into two groups of four. My station is number 2, right near Chef. Behind me, in the middle are the ovens. Again, it’s two banks of four burners, two large hotplates and four ovens on each side. This arrangement means that when I’m cutting at my work station, my back will be to the stove.
Once my knives are out, I get my ingredients. All ingredients are provided by the school and are sitting in blue crates on the side when I arrive. With my cutting board to hold my trays, our class quickly lines up, takes our ingredients and starts to work. Because it’s not a competition, there’s no rush to the food baskets or fights for ingredients. All the ingredients are beautiful and there’s no time for needless anxiety. There’s only enough time to focus on my own work plan and my own work station.
Working with my senses.
Once I have my ingredients, my notes are what initially keeps me on track. By the time class starts, they are transcribed into readable bullets, and sometimes include time milestones to make sure I’ll finish on time. They also include helpful information like which tools to use, oven temperatures and best times to leave my work station to wash my pots and pans. There is no chatter amongst the students and talking is rare. Occasionally I help out my partner by whispering to them that their pot is boiling over or by answering a question such as “when do we add the parsley?” But mostly we work in silence. The only talking is done by Chef, followed by a chorus of “Oui, Chef.”
Though Chef is in the practical class with us, he’s more observing than teaching. If we are really struggling with a technique, like on the day we trussed a chicken, he will come by and assist. Or if he sees that our mushrooms have been reduced to charcoal, he’ll move them off the hotplate for us. But other than that, we are on our own. It’s time for us to trust our notes, our instincts and learn.
I hear a lot of wonderful sounds. In the beginning, the lighting of pilot lights and the other students turning on their ovens. Next, the ringing and clanging of pots and pans, bowls and trays as we organize and start. Then it’s the crisp, strong sounds of chopping, and the squirt of water spraying as someone quickly cleans a pot or bowl that is needed in the next phase of production.
Next comes the aromas. Chef tells us that our best timer is our nose, and that learning the smells from start to finish will ensure the food is always perfectly cooked. As cooking begins, the aromas are acidic, from the onions or shallots. As they simmer in butter on the stove, the strong aroma transforms into a sweetness that is both comforting and appetizing. Soon, our class will be cooking the other ingredients, mixing the smells of meat, vegetables, and starches.
Each aroma has such a powerful association with memory that sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on completing my work. Sometimes it’s the smells of a winter holiday that I associate with a thick beef sauce reduction, or maybe the smells of the pine forest near my home in California as juniper berries are added to the meat. Or sometimes it’s the odor of a summer campfire, and then I know I’m trouble and hope I can find a creative solution. Especially in the practical room, with my back to the stove, it’s important to follow the scents. My nose has to be my second set of eyes.
Other times, when I’m lucky, my work plan indicates that I have to stay with the food and not leave it to cook or simmer on its own. It might be an omelette, a fillet of salmon, or a rack of lamb. At these moments, I am able to stay with the food and take it through each stage of cooking.
And after the initial sounds and aromas, the moment where it all comes together for me is the lovely chante, or singing, of an ingredient that is being cooked at the proper temperature. This is when food is transformed into a work of art. At this point, I too want to sing. This is the moment I always take a breath and think, “I’m cooking in at Le Cordon Bleu.” This is my favorite moment of cooking, even more than plating or eating. I could stand at my station, breathing in the aromas, listening to the sizzle, and just making my ingredients chante all day long.
Salmon cooked stove top, then the crust placed under a broiler
But throughout these moments of listening and smelling and reverie, my mind is trying to manage the schedule. Do I still have enough time for the sauce at the end? If I’m behind schedule, is there somewhere I can make up time – like potato peeling, or raising my oven temperature. It’s always a struggle to mentally move out of the symphony of kitchen sounds and smells and into the world of calculations. But because I only have two and a half hours, I must.