"Any snark on the scoresheets was tempered not only by our own memories of the ordeal, but by the humble pie we've baked, burnt, and eaten since graduating."
One of the unadvertised perks of graduating from the French Culinary Institute is the periodic invitation to return as a judge. Halfway through the six- or nine-month professional cooking course, FCI students take a grueling three-hour exam that will determine their future at the school. In the kitchen, chef-instructors walk up and down the stations, awarding or subtracting marks for hygiene and efficiency. In the tasting room, a pastry kitchen done up in white linens, a jury of former students assesses each plate on taste, temperature, and presentation. Each candidate receives his verdict in a face-to-face encounter with the panel.
Any similarity to the current crop of competitive cooking shows begins and ends with the presence of a judging panel; there's no Secret Ingredient or, mercifully, sponsor-driven Quickfire Challenge. By the time they pick their assignment out of the toque, students have already been practicing the sixteen possible dishes for several weeks. Still, the dishes are labor-intensive French classics chosen to showcase technique. Half the class prepares an appetizer and a meat course, and the rest, a fish course and dessert—four individually-plated portions of each dish, and, hopefully, bang on time.
Last Friday, I returned to my alma mater to judge, and document, a midterm exam. The menu, after the jump.
We began our tasting with a beef consommé poured over a macédoine—small, precise dice—of poached vegetables. Consommé is practically extinct in all but the most traditional of French restaurants, which I suspect is because it's a dish that lays bare one's technique. A stray drop of fat spoils the broth, and a single speck of scum gives the cook away. Impressively, every consommé I tasted was perfectly clear.
In sea bass en papillote, the fillet is placed on a bed of tomato fondue and mushroom duxelles, then topped with three different vegetable juliennes, each having been cooked separately. It's all placed on parchment paper, which then is folded over and sealed to form a papillote, or pouch, for steam-baking. There's an awful lot of knife work and almost no room for error—you just have to shove your parcels in the oven and hope for the best. I didn't taste a fish fillet that wasn't overcooked, probably for the same reason that en papillote is a phrase rarely seen on restaurant menus today: it's a very challenging dish to prepare.
There's a lot to get right in boeuf bourguignon, too, from the meat, which should almost dissolve in your mouth, and the sauce, which should be rich but not over-reduced, to the mushroom, bacon, and pearl onion accompaniments, each cooked separately. The candidate whose dish is pictured, right, attained braised beef nirvana; unusually in an evening that requires you to taste twelve or sixteen plates, everyone on my panel finished this student's Burgundy beef. Nobody stunned us with their handmade noodles, though.
We ended our tasting on a tangy note with apple tart and chantilly cream. Bearing in mind that there's no stand mixer or electric whisk in the examination kitchen, and shortcrust pastry and heavy cream are mixed and whipped by hand, every slice was at least competent, and one downright exceptional. It's fascinating to see what multiple cooks can make from the same recipe, with fillings ranging from tart to sweet, in colors pale through golden.
For the alumni, the Top Chef-like set-up was an opportunity to indulge their inner Tom Colicchio. Fortunately for the candidates, for every budding Toby Young in the tasting room, there was also a sentimental Paula Abdul. And any snark on the scoresheets was tempered not only by our own memories of the ordeal, but by the humble pie we've baked, burnt, and eaten since graduating; speaking for myself, nothing softens your perspective like curdling three gallons of your employer's crème anglaise.
For the students, it was both a first taste of the pressures of restaurant service and a somewhat inaccurate portrayal of its demands. Barring a serious time-management mishap, no restaurant in the world would have its fish guy hand-mixing sweet shortcrust during dinner service, and it would be service suicide to clarify consommé to order. Even if their plates weren't perfect, students should take heart in the knowledge that if they can pass this exam, they're ready for anything.
Non-alumni can sample the students' cooking at L'Ecole, the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute. Lunch is served Monday through Friday, and dinner Monday through Saturday.