Monday, December 15, 2008

Conquering the Practical




Last week I completed one of two practical exams I will be expected to pass while at the CIA. Every student had a time slot throughout last week that allowed us to to attend class in the afternoon as well.....though it would have been nice if we could have just had a week of practicals without extra class.
The test is intense, to say the least. We have 2 ½ hours to prepare four plates that include a protein, two vegetables and a starch. We are also required to prepare four cups of consomm√©, which is a clarified broth also known as a “clear soup.” We clarify it with a mixture of ground meat, vegetables, egg whites etc. It’s a culinary school thing. There are six different menus we could “choose” the day we go in to perform. They included: beef stew, deep poached salmon, shallow poached halibut, grilled mahi-mahi, chicken w/ sauce fines herbs and roast chicken. We were expected to have all dishes memorized and know how to prepare each perfectly. We're graded on our professionalism throughout the meal preparation (how cleanly we are, how we use towels, sanitation with cutting boards, making sure things are refrigerated etc.), our plates presentation, temperature, taste, salt content, doneness, color etc. Two chefs judge and critique your plate and ask you 10 of 350 possible oral questions at the end of the practical.
I’ve never been so nervous in my life. The entire month before I had a weight of dread over my entire body and by the time the day before came I was shaking and more anxious than I had ever been. I can handle speaking in front of crowds, running in triathlons and taking huge exams…but preparing a meal to perfection and needing to do everything perfectly, having six different menus memorized and having to perform it all in the allotted time was too much for my brain to handle.
I came in Wednesday morning to pick the menu I wanted most, poached salmon. Those 2 ½ hours were the most intense of my life. In the middle of it I remember looking up from chopping and thinking, “this is crazy, my brain is going to explode, keep moving, go faster, you can do it.” I did pretty well. My consomm√© “raft” didn’t break and it came out clear, I remembered all items of the menu and prepared each well, cutting them correctly and cooking them the right amount of time. My only mess up was being 30 seconds late to put up the four plates on the counter. This cost me 10 points, which is A LOT. So much that being late failed two other people in my class since other points from their plate couldn’t make up the lost ten.
Thankfully, as chef Toni told me with a look of slight relief, “your plate was pretty good.” Thankfully, I answered the ten grueling questions correctly. Whew. God is good.
I never ever ever ever want to do it again. The whole week before I kept thinking of going on a bike ride after the practical and taking pictures of the beautiful vineyards. When I finally got to ride most of the vineyards were brown but there were a few “diamonds in the ruff” that I was able to capture. I think Napa in November/early December is one of the most amazing sights to see in the world. You should come visit.

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