The Level 3 Midterm: Battle of the Nicoise Salads

Professional Culinary Arts student Danielle Marullo on the Level 3 Midterm.

Follow Danielle at Got Room For More

If you tuned into my last article, you read about the trials and tribulations of Level 3 which I referred to as the “hungry games,” or “culinary boot camp.” Just two short weeks ago I was anxiously anticipating the Level 3 Midterm, where our skills and nerves would be put to the test. If you are wondering how it went well here is my “post game” recap:

It’s 5:45pm and all 22 of us enter the Level 3 classroom nervously clenching our knife bags and fussing with our uniforms to make sure everything is in place. First things first, we pick a letter/number out of a hat (or bain-marie) which indicates the time in which we will be presenting our dishes. Now this moment is crucial because if you pick, lets say D7, you will have at least 20-30 more minutes to execute your dishes than the person that is D1. I quickly and aggressively pull out a number as if I am removing an old Band-Aid that is stuck to my skin. My voice decrescendos as I say out loud “C!…2…” This means I am the second group out of seven to present and one of the people with the least amount of time to cook, fabulous. The white board at the front of the room indicates which recipes each number will be making. For my class, the two possible combinations of recipes were, Barramundi Americaine/Apple Tart or Nicoise Salad/Grand Mere Chicken. Considering I have a strong pastry background, I prayed that I would get the opportunity to wow the judges with my beautiful apple tart, but that’s not the way life works. My fate lies in a bowl of raw chicken and vegetables. Focus Danielle, let’s do this!

The first part of the midterm is a comprehensive written exam. We must write down the ingredients, measurements and procedure for one of the 16-20 recipes we cooked in Level 3. No we do not choose which recipe we want to use, the chef chooses and it is noted on the exam. The recipe portion of the exam is followed by a few multiple choice and short answer questions, and then it is note taking time. We have 4-5 minutes to jot down any notes that may be helpful when making our recipes, since textbooks cannot be out during the practical exam. I frantically wrote down as many details about the recipes as I could remember, barely forming each letter on the page from all the adrenaline pumping through my body. When the five minutes was up it was time to pull out my knives and get cookin’.

When it comes to timing, I have never had a problem in the kitchen. In fact, I am usually one of the first ones done with my dishes in class each week. For some reason this day felt different. The clock seemed to be ticking double time, how was I going to finish these dishes!? I remained calm, I gathered my mise en place and began to execute the Nicoise Salad. Now if you have never made a Nicoise Salad, you are probably thinking, how could a salad be so stressful, she got the easy one…no you are very wrong! The hard part about a Nicoise Salad is that there are so many different components and all of them are prepared differently. You have the butter lettuce which must be washed and torn into pieces by hand; red potatoes that need to be boiled, peeled and cut into wedges; eggs that need to be hard boiled, peeled and cut into wedges; haricot verts that are blanched and cut into equal lengths; bell peppers that are peeled and cut into a nice julienne; olives that have to be finely chopped; tomatoes that are blanched, peeled and cut into petal shapes; parsley that needs to be washed and finely chopped; a vinaigrette that needs to be made and infused with garlic; and finally, tuna and anchovies that need to be drained and dressed properly. This is a composed salad, which means that each one of these ingredients also must be dressed and seasoned with salt and pepper separately and then arranged on the plate one by one.

Everything was going smoothly, most of my salad ingredients were cooked and ready in individual bowls in the fridge waiting for me to assemble them except for the eggs and potatoes, which were still cooking. I test the potatoes, and they are still hard! I swear these potatoes take very little time normally but of course today they decide to take double the time. I throw them back into some water and attempt to cook them some more. I take the eggs out of the boiling water and shock them in ice. I start to peel them and realize that the shells are sticking to the egg white, causing me to somewhat mutilate a few of my eggs. Now I am starting to breathe heavily, I have about 20 minutes before I present the salad to the judges and I have eggs that don’t peel. I take a deep breath and peel them as carefully as I could, damaging about half of my eggs along the way. I run and grab my cold plates that I had stuck in the freezer to ensure my salad stays crisp and fresh on the plate. I put on gloves so the proctor walking around sees that I am following proper protocol. I have four minutes left, I am dressing each ingredient separately and placing them on the four dishes. My hands are shaking so hard that half of the chopped olives are ending up on the ground instead of the plate. The chef proctor yells, “A2, B2, C2 it is time for you to present!” Now every minute you are late your grade drops, so I quickly grab my serving tray and walk across the hall to the judging table, praying that all my ingredients made it to the plate. I place my tray of four salads in front of the judges and leave the room. I did it, I finished the salad. The presentation was not my finest, it was mediocre at best in my mind, but I knew the taste was just right. No time to relax, you re forgetting that I still have another dish to finish and present.

While making the salad, I was simultaneously dressing a whole chicken, searing it in a pan, finishing it in the oven, starting a chicken au jus, making bacon lardons, and cleaning and sautéing mushrooms. I was in decent shape, or was I? I still had 12 cocotte potatoes to make which is basically whittling potatoes into a 7-sided bullet shape using a paring knife. I start to cocotte the potatoes, hands shaking and scraps of potato plopping into the bowl of water in front of me. The proctor begins to hover; she is watching my every move. I quickly try to straighten up my area around me and when attempting the throw some onion peels into the garbage beside me, I accidentally throw the silver bowl in the trash with it. I look up at the proctor like a deer in headlights, smile and nervously say, “I totally just threw that bowl out.” She looks at me and says nothing…nothing. I chuckled nervously while ripping the bowl out of the trash, bring it to the dish pit while kicking myself along the way, wash my hands in shame and then get back to work. Okay, it is just one little hiccup, my chicken looks gorgeous and is resting beside me and my cocotte potatoes are some of my best. I blanch the potatoes, sauté them and then roast them in the oven until they are perfectly crisp. My au jus is reduced, perfectly seasoned and strained into a pan staying warm on the stove. I have roughly 30 minutes left and I haven’t touched the pearl onions! The pearl onions we are used to using are usually about ¾ of an inch in diameter, but today they were microscopic. These pearl onions were the smallest I had ever seen! They were the size of an M&M and when I peeled them there was virtually nothing left. I did by best and cooked them glacer à brun (to a dark caramel color) and set them aside. With 15 minutes left I cut up my chicken and flash the pieces in the oven to get warm along with the entrée plates. 8 minutes on the clock and I begin to plate. I am careful to plate one piece of white meat with one piece of dark meat on each plate, one bone in and one bone out. I place 3 onions, 3 lardons, 3 potatoes and 3 mushrooms on each plate. I gradually pour a hot stream of au jus over the chicken and finish the dish with a sprinkle of parsley.

chicken midterm

I walk the dish over to the judges right on time, wearing just as much chicken au jus as I am serving. It was a stressful evening, but it was over. I begin to do a play-by-play of the evening in my head over and over, unsure about what the outcome would be. Did I feel it was by best work? No… but I felt proud of myself for finishing two difficult dishes under such extreme pressure. Once everyone was done presenting their dishes we were called into the judging room one by one to hear their feedback.

The judge who critiqued me started with, “How do you think you did?” I told him I thought my presentation was lack luster knowing my abilities and that I could have done better overall, but I felt the seasoning and flavors were pretty spot on. He smiled and said to me, “I think you are being hard on yourself, I thought your Nicoise Salad was the best one in terms of flavor and seasoning, and I thought your chicken dish was one of the two that I felt were done extremely well.” Wow, maybe I was a little too hard on myself. Hearing those words coming out of this gentleman’s mouth felt like someone saying, “You just won a million dollars.” I was immediately overcome with a feeling of accomplishment and self worth. It reassured me that this is where I belong, I was on the right track to becoming the Chef I always dreamed of being. Here I come Level 4!

To learn more about Danielle’s class, click here: Professional Culinary Arts
Follow Danielle at Got Room For More

Watch a short video of our Level 3 Midterm to see what it’s like for yourself!