Levels 1 and 2 of the Professional Culinary Arts program were the fundamentals; the preparatory levels that teach you all the proper techniques and terminology you need to survive in a professional kitchen. Then there was level 3…the boot camp. I remember being one of the “newbies” back in May, listening to all the level 3 students chattering in the locker room about their stressful day in the kitchen. I would come back to the locker room after level 2 with maybe a small splatter or two of food on my jacket and apron with my hair still in tact and my makeup from my day job still lying perfectly on my cheeks and lashes. With the level 3 students it was different. They looked as if they got caught in a Vitmamix Blender on high speed, I knew this level was no piece of cake…in fact it was more of Pot de Crème (a dish you make in level 3 and one of my worst dishes).
Unfortunately for me, I missed the first day of level 3 due to a work event, which made me even more nervous to walk into that second floor kitchen. I stroll into the kitchen on day two to find it is unlike any of the other classrooms. It is smaller, hotter than a bowl of Consommé straight out the pot, and the tension in the air is so thick you can julienne it. Strategically placed above the doorway is a very large, digital clock that shows the time in beaming, red, LED lights. Let the “Hungry Games” begin.
Level 3 is titled “Discipline: Skills Consistency and Refinement.” We focus on time management and properly executing multiple dishes simultaneously while keeping our eyes on the clock. In the beginning, you are split into groups of four, and each group is divided into stations resembling a restaurant kitchen. One person is assigned to Garde Manger (soups and salads), one person is Poissonier (fish), one Saucier (meats and sauces) and finally one person is Patissier (pastry). As a group you must present each of these dishes at a designated time, and tardiness is not tolerated. While you are cooking your dish you must be able to assist your team members to ensure everything is perfect and presented on time. After all, you are a team so even if your partners dish turns out poor, it is a reflection of you and your ability to multi-task and work as a team.
As a team you are also expected to create an “Amuse Bouche” which is a one-bite appetizer that gets the taste buds going at the start of a meal. This is one of my favorite things to execute because it is my time to get creative! We are given a few mystery ingredients to use in this one-bite-delight and must use at least three of them along with anything else we can find in the classroom. This tiny appetizer can tell the chef a lot about your abilities, your creativity and finally your presentation skills. For example, one day the secret ingredients were: goat cheese, baguette, smoked salmon and tomatoes. I knew most people would make a crostini once they saw the bread, so went outside the box! I made a New York style bagel in one bite. I mixed the goat cheese with capers and formed it into a log and froze it. I then took the baguette, toasted it, and made breadcrumbs out of it. Once the cheese was solidified in the freezer, I cut it in 1/3-inch-thick medallions, breaded them in flour, egg and the breadcrumbs and then fried them in Canola Oil. Once they we’re crispy and golden brown we topped them with smoked salmon and finely diced tomato and shallot with a hint of lemon juice. When the chef put it in his mouth his response was,“WOW this tastes like a really good bagel!” Great success!
A few weeks into the level you begin to work in pairs and are expected to execute two dishes simultaneously, while being timed of course. You will also have mock midterms throughout the level to prepare you for the real midterm, which is where the fun begins. The midterm = two difficult dishes, two hours, and me myself and I. This practical exam is a true test of your abilities and your nerves. You better hope you paid attention throughout the entire level because midterm day is when you find out what you will be cooking. The chef-instructor chooses two different pairings out of the 16 dishes we have executed in level 3, one Garde Manger dish with one Saucier dish, or one Poissonier with and one Patissier dish. We have five minutes to quickly jot down a few notes about those dishes, such as the ingredients and measurements, and then it’s showtime. We have roughly two hours and 15 minutes to create four portions of both dishes, plate them perfectly and then present them on a serving tray to a panel of judges. Who are the judges you ask? Well they are recent graduates of the program, so you know they may have their neckerchiefs in a bunch…no mercy. Did I mention that while you are cooking there is a Chef walking around with a notepad watching your every move? The Chef will be making sure that all students are following proper sanitation rules, keeping their stations neat and tidy, as well as observing our knife skills and time management skills.
Here are a few key things to remember when in level 3 to ensure you are successful.
- -Remain Calm! Panicking does you no good. You need to be functioning and productive every minute, so nerves will not help you.
- -Be confident in your abilities! At this stage in the game you know a lot more than you think.
- -Ask questions at the start of the class before you start cooking
- -Communicate with your partner to ensure you are managing your time correctly and don’t end up with duplicates of the same item.
- -Have trust in your partner. If your partner is less skilled than you are be sure to be patient and give helpful/encouraging tips along the way. The worst thing you can do is bring the morale of the team down ultimately causing your partner to lose focus.
- -Take notes when the chef is giving you pointers on the dishes at the start of the class.
- -Make sure the plates are hot if the dish you are making is served hot. You will lose points for this!
- -Always have a side towel in hand. You will be moving extremely fast and due to the warm temperatures in the room you will sometimes feel out of focus. If you do not have a towel in hand chances are you will eventually burn yourself by grabbing a hot pot or pan. Yes, I am speaking from experience.
- -Wear gloves when plating! No one wants to eat cooked food you touched with your bare hands.
- -Mis en Place- Make sure you grab everything you need at the start of the class including ingredients, pots, pans and bowls so you do not have to run all over the classroom.