Thursday was our last day cooking in the kitchen before our exams commenced on Friday. I prepared caramel salumbos (French cream puffs made with choux pastry and dipped in caramelized sugar) and made a plaited white yeast bread. I was happy with how both items came out, but I did take forever in the kitchen, which is a little disconcerting considering that I was only making two things. Granted, it did take forever for my white yeast bread dough to rise and choux pastry is a bit of a pain (but not as bad as flaky pastry, so I hear). I think everyone assumes a certain personality in the kitchen. Some people are massively efficient and quick, but I think my personality is slow and steady. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, as I like to focus on each dish that I am preparing and really make an effort to get it right. Yet, I am beginning to think that I might have a hard time in a professional kitchen or in a restaurant kitchen setting with all of the time pressures that chefs face daily. However, I am okay with this, since my interests lie more with wine, and there isn’t much speedy multitasking when it comes to wine pairing, opening a bottle of wine, or pouring a glass…at least I don’t think there is.
Thursday evening was spent revising for the exams. The first part of the exam is a herb and salad leaf identification with two recipes listed for each herb, and the second part of the exam is the techniques portion where you are tested on four techniques – two that are mandatory (chop and sweat an onion and make a paper piping bag) and two that are picked at random out of a list of 33 possible techniques. I decided to make a list of all the herbs, draw pictures of them, and then fill in two recipes for each herb. This sounds a lot easier than it actually turned out to be, as I wanted to do a really thorough job and go through my three binders of recipes that I have to determine the herbs that went into all of our dishes that we had made up until this point in the course. Well, I soon realized how time-consuming that study method was turning out, so I then decided to just focus on the first two recipes that I came across for each herb and memorize them. I then went downstairs to practice some of the more trickier techniques. I had already practiced jointing the chicken on Sunday and had filleted two round fish during the week, so I felt somewhat confident there (I even secretly hoped that I got filleting round fish as one of my techniques, as I felt that I could do a pretty decent job.). In any event, I segmented two oranges and then moved on to making French omelettes. Luca gave me some pointers, and by my third try, my omelette-making skills were pretty solid…or at least respectable. The rest of the evening was spent with Matthew who had made herb and recipe flashcards (yes, herb and recipe flashcards), and we tested each other for a good while on those. Afterwards, I laid out my clean chef whites for the next day, and despite my night owl tendencies, I managed to go to bed at a decent hour for the first time since I can remember.
On Friday morning, I awoke with a feeling of nervous anticipation. Despite the fact that I have taken countless exams in my life, I still had that same butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. I guess when the word “test” or “exam” is attached to anything, it will always cause that same unshakeable reaction in me. I tried to alleviate the nerves by listening to some music that normally motivates me, but no matter how many times that I listened to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes that morning, it didn’t seem to have any effect (Thanks for nothing, Jack White.). During the morning, we had a lovely demonstration on pizza-making with Rory, but I couldn’t get myself to concentrate fully on it. I kept reviewing my herbs and salad leaves in my head and felt panicky thinking about the techniques that would be assigned to me.
After a lunch that I just picked at (I can never eat when I am nervous, and what a shame too, since there was such an amazing spread of delicious foods.), I had some time to spare before my exam time. I reviewed everything again and tried to relax. Once my scheduled exam time came around, I felt as ready as I was ever going to be. The herb and salad leaf recognition part of the exam went okay, although I think I might have mixed a couple of them up. I was then asked to lay a formal place setting and present a bottle of wine and pour a glass for a customer. I did both perfectly and thankfully so, since if I can’t do either of those things, then I would be in real trouble with my aspirations of becoming a sommelier. So I got a little boost of confidence there..which was only short-lived.
I waited to be called into Kitchen 2 where the technique exam was taking place. All of the doors and windows had been covered up in newspaper, so you couldn’t see what was going on in the rooms. The exam times were backed up slightly, so I didn’t up going in for the techniques until well-after my originally allotted time. When I got to my assigned station, I was told that my techniques would be to chop and sweat an onion, make a paper piping bag, make caramel sauce, and make a French omelette. I was initially happy with my assigned techniques, as I had practiced them, and they didn’t seem too complicated. Well, my initial happiness soon turned to outright panic because guess who my judge turned out to be? Only THE Rachel Allen! As soon as I realized this, I nearly died. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely adore Rachel, but having someone who is one of the most recognizable faces in the culinary sphere in Ireland and the UK is more than a bit intimidating – no matter how down-to-earth and sweet she actually is in real life. Anyway, I ended up getting really shaky, which is a strange reaction for me since I always have steady hands. Yet, I couldn’t stop my hands from trembling the entire time I was in the kitchen, which is bad because in case you were wondering, you do need your hands a lot when cooking (Oh, that was sarcastic, wasn’t it? Sorry.). In the end, I managed to perform all of the techniques without any major catastrophes, but suffice it to say that I didn’t feel that my performance was indicative of my actual abilities in the kitchen. Oh well. I’m pretty sure that I passed…but not with flying colors. Passed with minimal competency is probably more like it.
After the exam, I was ready to pass out, so I took a quick nap to recharge my brain. Jamie and I then drove into Ballycotton to pick up my order from the local green grocer’s for the Mexican lunch we were having on Sunday with Jenn, Kait, Oisin, Zoe, Matthew, and Cat. Then we had a lovely supper at Jamie’s of green salad with goat’s cheese and a chorizo risotto. This all sounds so incredibly civilized…I forgot to mention that we also drank copious amounts of wine and cocktails to de-stress…and ended up in the Blackbird later on in the evening with the majority of the other Ballymaloe students. We deserved a night free from worry and anxiety, and we made damn sure that that’s what we got!
A few pics, including my the progress of my practice attempts at making French omelettes and my caramel salumbos and plaited white yeast bread: