racing the clock
August 19, 2008

I've been stricken with fear that I will not pass my midterm. Failure in an academic setting is pretty much something new for me. I wake up dreaming that I'm about to present my consommé and I realize I haven't à l'anglaised my macedoine. Chef X is there in the background screaming, "Sa-rah. I will keel you if you do not watch your time. You must be careful of that." I end each night in the kitchen with vestiges of an old, bad headache, and I can't tell if it's stress, dehydration or exhaustion. I wonder at what point I'll start hallucinating.

Our midterm consists of a random pairing of 16 recipes, appetizer with meat course or fish with dessert. For the mock midterm I drew flounder marguery and apple tart and poorly executed both. We work without recipes to present our plates (four of each) to a panel of chefs, with each dish due at a specific time (specific like 9:47). We're graded by them as well as by kitchen proctors who watch like hawks as we use improper equipment, try to compensate for never-sharp-enough knives and plate without gloves. Timing is my particular Achilles' heel; last Friday Chef made me compost four plates of food in front of the whole class because I was late. (I did not cry. Small victories.)

But this week I finally finished a big article for work and reclaimed some time to try set my poor, rattled mind at ease. I've studiously poured over each possible combination—32 in all, and I have a game plan for each written in my notebook. Problem is you can't always think your way through a kitchen. So I choose two combinations I feel less-than-confident about and promise myself I'll do some midterm simulation.

First up: those damned poached eggs and poule au pot, a chicken dish so boring it shouldn't be threatening, but it requires a lot of cocotte—a particular culinary school hell involving turning carrots, turnips, potatoes and celery into five-centimeter footballs. I don't leave work quite as early as I'd intended, but I've bought groceries and am home by 7:15. I'm not exactly sure what my times will be (we draw those out of a hat too), but I figure that, if I can start cooking by 7:30, 9:30 for the eggs and 10 for the chicken is reasonable.

Game plan point one: manchonner the chicken and get it into broth for a 30-minute bare simmer. I've pretty much mastered cleaning up a chicken, but trussing still leaves something to be desired. My attempt tonight isn't bad, but I suspect if I were in class I'd be told to do it again.

Next: chop and cook all the vegetables that accompany the poached egg. They can sit until they need to be reheated. I'm a little sloppy with my macedoine (.5 cemtimeter squares), but I'm moving along at a good pace. The key here is to get them soft enough. Chef does not like his vegetables al dente. The same goes for the cocotte, though they are harder to test without making extra (which takes more time...).

Chicken reads 145° by now, so I take it off the burner, but leave it in broth to climb a few more degrees. Now to poach eggs—carefully since I have a habit of breaking them (the quasi-revelation tonight is that I probably just need to cook them longer, even if it sacrifices a tiny bit of yolk runniness come presentation time). They go in the fridge to sit, and I start on my hollandaise , which comes together fine.

Now the timing issues: With 20 minutes until first time limit, do I start my sauce raifort, which accompanies the chicken? Or start reheating all my plate #1 components? I go with the latter, but then I'm ready with the poached eggs 10 minutes early. I file that information away and sit down to taste one of the plates. I try to think of what Chef X would say: The hollandaise is probably a bit too thin and should stay better on the eggs. The vegetables might be too salty thanks to a last-moment dollop of kosher as I was throwing them on the plate. But I wonder if what seems too-salty in my own apartment would seem perfectly reasonable in the heightened kitchen atmosphere at school. But otherwise my eggs are good. Definitely a pass.

Back to the chicken, I make my sauce, guessing at my amounts since I didn't check the recipe before I started. I'm using a prepared horseradish because I couldn't find any actual root at C-Town, and I think I over-brown the roux, but overall the sauce tastes good. I carve up my chicken (still hot) and put my cocottes back in stock to reheat. Then I glance at the clock and realize I have two mintues left—and I can't figure out where the past half hour went. Still, I have everything plated and on the table moments later, and I'm impressed with my dish, even in its unadornment. I have, for once, managed to cook my vegetables all the way. The chicken is tender and as flavorful as plain chicken can be. My broth might be a bit oily—patience in degreasing something else to remember—but it's tasty. I decide to give myself an A on my fake midterm.

I end up with the same headache I've had after class the past two nights, and I attempt to solve it in the same way I've done then—with a cold drink. Then I realize what I miss most about that professional-style kitchen: the dishwasher guys.

Next up: fish en papillote and apple tart and a crash-course in tuile batter.