So ends week “one” of school. The week started with an orientation day where we met the staff, were given our uniforms and equipment, including a very professional (and very sharp – more on that below) set of knives and were presented with the school rules as well as given an overview of what we could expect for the next 10 weeks. I was told by one of the staff that out of 90 incoming students, there is representation from over 50 countries. It truly is an international group. I have already been fortunate enough to meet several great folks from all over the world. And yes, even a few folks a little closer to my stage in life!
A little bit about how the school works: A semester consists of 30 lessons and an exam. As a newbie, I am in the first semester that is called “Basic Cuisine.” (There is also a parallel track for patisserie or pastry.) Each lesson features a recipe or a dish that is designed to teach us some specific techniques or concepts. One thing I should note here, although it is true that the majority of dishes we will make are considered classical “French” cuisine, the techniques and concepts we are learning are designed to be applied to cuisines of all nationalities.
Each “lesson” has two parts, a “demonstration” and a “practical.” The demonstration is held in a large open kitchen demo/classroom with about 50 students. In that forum, the chef actually prepares the dish, carefully explaining what we will need to do and what the important concepts are, and all of the how’s and the why’s. The chef only speaks french during the demo, but there is a translator who translates his comments to english. The demo last about 2 to 2 1/2 hours and ends with the chef presenting the finished dish. At that point we are given a tasting and are allowed to take photo’s of the final presentation.
Then either later that day or the next day, we have what is called the “practical” where we are sent into the kitchen in groups of about 10 along with a supervising chef and there we have to prepare that recipe on our own. However, in our handouts for each recipe we are only given the ingredients list. The only instructions we have to use are our own notes from the demo session.
In the practical kitchen we have a workstation with a cutting board, an electric range with 4 burners, and an oven with 2 partitions. The kitchen is filled with pots, pans, strainers, refrigerators, and all sorts of utensils. There is a small room to the side where a team of dishwashers work constantly to keep up with the students who are dropping off used pots or pans. The practical lasts just under 3 hours from setup to cleanup and at the end the chef grades our finished presentation on all sorts of criteria, including taste, texture, presentation, temperature (of the food and the plate) etc.
Lesson 1 – Rustic French Soup.
The first lesson called for a pretty basic rustic french soup. It was designed to get us started with the proper habits for organization and cleanliness in the kitchen as well as teach us some basic french techniques for cutting vegetables and making clear and flavorful broths.
Going in, I thought the practical would be pretty easy and enjoyable, but very early in the first session I found out what my life was going to be like for the next 10 months. The 2 1/2 hours was a blur, the chef was constantly pushing us to work faster and properly. He was demanding, but in a good way. Clearly his motives were to instill good habits early on into the students, particularly when it came to our safety and the cleanliness of the food.
In this practical, we had to execute completely new and foreign french vegetable cutting methods with exotic names such as Brunoise, Paysenne and Cisele. The chef would come by each station and politely but firmly point out what we were doing wrong and explain or demonstrate the proper technique. I even invented a new cut where I pierced my left index finger and started bleeding all over a potato!
Overall the practical session was stressful, exhausting, confusing, yet exhilarating, it was a total rush of adrenaline. I hate to say this but it was almost like an episode of iron chef, (for beginners of course!). The time flew by, but all of us managed to finish our work just in the nick of time.
At the end of the practical session we had to clean the kitchen for the next group and then pack up our work in tupperware to take home. My first product provided three great meals for Susan and I in the first week.
Lesson 2- Lemon Sole and Fish Stock
Lesson 2 required us to clean, filet and skin 2 lemon sole flat fish, including the mandatory gouging out of the eyes with our vegetable peeler, making a fish stock from the carcass and a mirepoix, deglazing with white wine, poaching the filets in the stock with shallots and then making a Bercy sauce by reducing the fish stock and emulsifying butter.
Two and a half hours of controlled chaos and two more minor cuts on my fingers later I completed my maritime masterpiece, presented it on a warm plate and waited for the chef to review it. He tasted it and said, “Sauce is too runny, fish is slightly overcooked but overall flavor is excellent.” The good news is I knew already why the sauce was too runny and why the fish was overcooked, it was because I didn’t do a good enough job of managing my time. So I’m calling that a victory for now.
So looking back at week one and my introduction here at LCB, I think my biggest takeaway is that this is going to be a lot harder and a lot more stressful than I had thought. But I’m ok with that. As with all aspects of life, we don’t grow unless we’re pushed out of our comfort zone.
The school and the staff are terrific, but it is all business, there is no nonsense in the kitchen. The school works hard to prepare the next generation of chefs to cook in great kitchens all around the world.
Only a short month ago I was a slave to email and my cell phone, dealing with the daily minutiae of people that were either lying to me, wanted something or both. Tomorrow morning, I’ll hop on the Paris Metro, take the 25 minute ride to the Vaugirard station, change into my chef’s clothes and be completely immersed in the world of sauce bechamel, bridage d’une volaille (trussing poultry), and technique du souffle. So far?… C’est si bon!