Sunday, November 16, 2008

Electrical, emotional and ethical

TGV has recently been in the local news, the target of an unidentified group of individuals who are sabotaging electrical power on some of its train lines. So recalling my harrowing TGV journey in September, I wasn’t going to take any chances in getting to my final practical exam on time. So on Monday 10th November, I boarded the 5:35am train to Paris. Even though I didn’t need to be at the school until midday, this preventive step would give me plenty of time to manage potential issues, even if the train were delayed by an hour.

Fortunately, the train arrived on time at Gare de Lyon and I was not rushed. With the extra time (not to mention the fact I was starving!!), I decided to recharge my own reserves and stopped off at Le Notre where I treated myself to a couple brioche a tete, followed by a cappuccino at a local café. I rarely have time to do this, so I was feeling refreshed and awake when I arrived at the school about 10:45am. I would avoid the mad rush in the vestiaire, be able to have a final review of my class notes, and then could go off to the test feeling more or less relaxed. I was standing there in front of my locker, putting on my uniform thinking positive thoughts. Suddenly, the sound of sobbing crumbled my optimism.

There had been an exam session starting at 8:30 am and students from this session began filing into the vestiaire. It was a mix of cuisine and pastry students, many of whom were expressing some type of dissatisfaction about their exam. I was overhearing disheartening comments about chocolate spilled on uniforms, curdled sauces, fish filets dropped on the floor (whoops!), tumbling utensils and the like. But the sobbing is what really made me feel awful. For all I knew, this could be me or anyone in my group in a matter of hours. Other students were gathering around her in comfort. The student in question is a pastry and cuisine student, and so at first I wasn’t sure which test she’d just taken.

She was gulping and her jaw was quivering...her eyes were puffy & red from crying. It was pretty bad. I tried to look sympathetic while trying not to stare. “He’s such an ***! Oh why does he have to be like this on test day! He hated my final decoration, and then he wouldn’t even let me re-do it…!” She continued with her recounting of the events that led to her emotional state. Unfortunately, it seemed to just make her more emotional.

Another girl chimed in for support. “Yeah, well don't feel bad! I had to tell him to stop hovering over me, because it was making me too nervous. Still, I didn’t get that stupid rose right on my cake…”

Suddenly I knew these ladies had just finished the basic pastry exam and exactly who had proctored it. While we all continued offering words of comfort and reassurance to her, I was feeling the hair on my arms stand up. A certain impatient chef was still in one of his moods. Oh great. I’d have him next.

Meanwhile, everyone from the morning test was revealing the recipes that had been drawn: Mogador, Dacquoise and Tarte aux Pommes. So the list of 10 options had been narrowed to 3. So based on probability, it had been a good thing that I practiced the marzipan roses on the weekend, as this was part of the Dacquoise presentation. And apart from lots of whisking, Dacquoise was not too challenging a recipe. Tarte aux Pommes would be a gift, if I was indeed lucky enough in the lottery system, as it required no whisking. Meanwhile the Mogador, with the imbibing of the cake layer, temperature-related mousse challenges and (worst of all) drippy raspberry jam, was my least favorite option…at least for a test day. I’d better focus my last bit of available time on reviewing my notes for this one, particularly thinking through how to organize myself effectively.

Test time arrived and the 12 members of Group E assembled on time at the door of the practical lab to draw from a cup which contained the colored game chips. By now, everyone had heard what were the possible recipes. Most people were giggling and chatting, looking energized and eager to draw from the cup. I was one of the last people in my group to draw out a chip. I wasn’t sure if this would be a good thing or not.

I drew a yellow chip. This corresponded to…ta dah…Tarte aux Pommes! I felt a gush of relief, then a slight pang of guilt. I decided to shake it off immediately and embrace the good karma. I could have benefitted from the challenge of the Mogador and the Dacquoise, but let’s face it…this was test day and I was being graded on so many facets. So while the Tarte did not offer the same amount of elaborated decoration or preparation challenges, I decided to stop feeling guilty and enjoy the fact that it would give me the best chance to test on all aspects well – namely zero risk of finishing late, plus easier organization and cleanliness of my work area.

The technical dish was preparing & correctly lining a tarte circle. It’s the same pastry as for the finished tarte, so I would double the pastry recipe and make both crusts at once. Then I could choose which crust looked best for technical presentation vs being hidden with apple filling. So that’s what I did. It worked a treat!

I saved the biggest and prettiest shaped apples for the finishing garnish. I was extra careful in peeling them, and used my melon baller to core them neatly. Then I peeled and chopped the remaining apples to make the apple marmalade filling, sautéing these in sugar, butter, cinnamon & vanilla powder before finishing with a splash of Calvados and setting it in the fridge to cool thoroughly. It smelled really good going into the fridge. Then I cut the prettiest apples into the thinnest and most even slices I could. With the marmalade filling now cool enough, I moved ahead to filling my tarte shell and garnishing it neatly with the sliced apples, creating as even and clean crown as I could. Thankfully I had just finished and ready to go when Chef Cotte started asking for the tartes to be put into the oven.

Chef Cotte was mostly hands-off with the group and his mood seemed good. He’d given clear instructions on what to do at the start, then left us alone. Most of the time he was down at one end of the lab near the sink with a mixer running on turbo speed, fully engrossed in blowtorching the outside of a steel bowl that contained a white, nougatine looking substance. Hmm…I could only imagine it must be something for the graduation reception; but what, I had no idea. And given my newfound appreciation for blowtorches, I especially wanted to ask what on earth he was making, but I thought it best to lie low and not ask any unneeded questions. I snuck past him and did a quick wash-up of my utensils. I then returned to my work station and proceeded to clean and organize it as I was instructed while waiting for my tarte to finish baking.

Everyone appeared to be doing well. As I packed away my utensils and started to clean my work area, I took a moment to observe the others and sense their energy. The cheerful & efficient spirit of my group was still felt, even during this stressful time. People were occasionally chatting quietly and smiling, sharing utensils amongst themselves and even helping each other (for example, taking enough pastry bags back to the workstation for everyone). There would be no issue I could see with everyone not completing on time, and this made me happy, because we were effectively all ‘competing’ but doing it with such grace and dignity. And I finally fully appreciated why Group E really is ‘le meilleur groupe’ in basic pastry, and it wasn’t just because of aptitude but attitude as well. I’ll never forget that moment and I was happy to be a part of it. Whenever I have to compete in future, I hope I can always do it with such behaviour and team spirit.

My tarte finished baking, and all I had to do was brush on the apricot glaze, place my assigned testing number next to it, then leave the lab. So with that now finished, I was the first person to finish. At this point, Chef Cotte was starting to move around the room, encouraging some people to step up the pace a bit and reminding us of how to tidy our work area. He stopped at my workstation, touched me gently on the arm, smiled and praised me for the appearance of my items as well as my organization & cleanliness. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Merci, Chef” was all I could manage to say. I think I was still reeling with a range of emotions, most of them good though.

Before I departed the lab, I managed to sneak a photo of my finished tarte. I wouldn’t get to taste this one or take it home with me, so it will be my only tangible memento of the day. Still, I left with a sweet taste in my mouth.

No comments: