The Last Class

Today the chefs are taking us on a tour of a local market. One of the chefs is carrying a backpack. Before we enter the market, he gathers us in a circle and pulls out a canteen and a little paper cup for each student. “This never happened,” he says, as he pours us each a glass of hot-spiced wine. It’s 9 a.m., and we’re thankful for the libation, mainly because it’s delicious, but also because the roasted chickens turning in the adjacent window emit barely enough heat to warm us.

Chef starts the tour by saying that God created seasons, and we should respect them. The best asparagus he had ever eaten, he says, was plucked from the earth seconds before he bit into it, completely raw and with traces of dirt. It was flavorful and tender because it was locally grown and in season.

We pass a cheese monger, and tables of pears and colorful squash, and make our way over to a meat counter. Amongst the sausages and chicken legs, we see a sign for horsemeat. Excuze-moi? It’s lean and bright red. As a child, Chef says, his grandmother would feed him horse broth—it’s traditionally fed to children and elderly people because it is rich in iron. A moment later, a near ninety-year-old woman in a floor-length fur coat and jeweled broach, floats past us to the front of the counter. She’s clearly a regular, and her horsemeat has already been packaged for pick up. She flirts with Chef. He replies that after all that iron consumption, she must be ready to waltz with him.

As we walk back, Chef tells us that making food is like wrapping gifts; the one with the ribbon is more exciting, and people will pay more for it. The same goes for food. He advises us to pay attention to our presentation, not only at school, but also throughout our lives.

When we return to school, our written exam scores have been posted. I passed! So did almost the entire class. One less thing to worry about. Now we get to relax a bit and enjoy our haul from the market. Chef arranges a beautiful spread of wine, cheeses, sausages, clementines, persimmons, cakes, breads, olives, and shrimp. The food is simple and fabulous – nothing prepared, just local, seasonal, and world-class quality.

This evening we have our last demonstration before the final exam. One of our favorite chefs, who will also grade our exams, is demonstrating rack of lamb with parsley crust, spring vegetables and stuffed tomatoes, potato gratin, and a Baked Alaska for dessert. Just as the cake batter goes into the oven, Chef looks up inquisitively. His eyes dart over to his assistant, then back at the unbaked cake, and down at the empty cup that once held the butter. He accidentally added three times of the required butter. I am encouraged that this chef will be grading my exam. Too much butter? Pas de problème!

As Chef is frenching the rack of lamb, he gives us some parting thoughts before our exam: the chefs will be harsh about the size of your julienne for the Duck à l’Orange— keep it small and uniform. And, as it turns out, too much butter—even three times the required amount—is usually not a deal breaker.

My head is spinning with all the details we must remember for our final exam. I look down at my notes and realize that when Chef mentioned adding white wine to the parsley crust, I had penned, “add wite whine.” I should get a little sleep before this exam.

When the lamb comes out of the oven and we’ve as assembled our Baked Alaska, we enjoy our final tasting. The assistant passes out Champagne glasses, then fills them with cold, sparkling bubbly. Chef turns out the lights and passes around a huge bowl of leftover, melting, passionfruit sorbet, which we all dip our spoons into. Chef pours alcohol over the Baked Alaska and holds a match to it. Nothing happens. Chef relights, and again nothing happens (except, in a thick French accent, he shouts an English expletive). Chef drizzles more imbibing syrup, as he referred to it, and strikes a match for the third time. The Baked Alaska lights up like a campfire against a dark sky. We toast our Champagne and watch in silence as the alcohol burns off.

Over the next few days I prepare for the practical exam. Each of ten of us will be given a different recipe from the list below. We are given only a box of ingredients, and must create the menu in two hours, entirely from memory. For every minute our dish is late, we will be docked two percent.

  1. Poached chicken with supreme sauce and rice (simple, but bland)
  2. Roasted chicken with jus and garden-style vegetables
  3. Rabbit with mustard, sautéed potatoes (a complex dish)
  4. Brill fillets in white wine sauce (not bad if you can quickly gut a fish)
  5. Traditional veal stew with rice pilaf (this dish takes a long time, so you need to be efficient!)
  6. Sautéed veal chops with “grand-mere” style garnish of glazed onions, mushrooms and lardons (we’re all afraid of this one)
  7. Roast duckling with turnips
  8. Beef stroganoff with rice and vegetables (vegetables must be perfect brunoise!)
  9. Sea bream fillets with fennel
  10. Duck breast in orange sauce with Parisian-style gnocchi (anything but this…please…..)

I rewrite each recipe several times until I’ve reduced it to a quick, bulleted outline. My classmates and I had originally planned to practice each dish again, but there’s clearly no time to gather all the ingredients and work through the list. Instead, I team up with a friend and we decide to tackle just a few. We spend an entire evening looking for a rabbit to practice the lapin à la moutarde. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be running through the cobblestone streets of Paris looking for a dead rabbit to cook. Bunbun—the now pale pink, stuffed bunny I slept with as a child—would be horrified.

We can’t find a rabbit, so we settle on a chicken, though we talk through the rabbit incisions like world-class surgeons. We prepare the roasted chicken with jus, artichoke bottoms, and bacon and turned potatoes, then sit on the hardwood floor of my friend’s Parisian flat and quiz each other. One of us chooses a dish, and the other has to recite the recipe from memory. For each step missed or stated incorrectly, we take a sip of white wine. I ride home later on the metro half cross-eyed.

In the morning, I have a few hours before the exam to review final notes, make sure my uniform is clean and pressed, and convince myself I am the spirit animal of Auguste Escoffier, the father of traditional French cooking.