It’s game time. An entire month, six days each week, up to thirteen hours each day, all comes down to this exam. Failing this exam means failing the entire course, which means you’ve wasted your time and financial investment. I came here to earn the Le Cordon Bleu’s Basic Cuisine certificate, not to fail, so there’s a lot of self-inflicted pressure.
On my way out the door, I remember one of the chefs saying, “If I see a bone in your fish on exam day, that’s a zero!” I grab my Tweezerman tweezers from my cosmetics bag, just in case. Another chef recommended that, in advance, we cut a few cartouches (the circle-cut parchment), and bring a pinch of fleur de sel to finish off our dishes.
I have a forty-minute metro ride and am reviewing the steps of a roasted chicken in my head, though I’m probably moving my lips because other passengers are staring. When I get to school, I put on my uniform and meet my classmates outside our exam room. After twenty minutes of anxious waiting (I actually can feel my heart pounding), Chef unlocks the door and assembles us in a single file. I’m last. As each student enters the room, they’re handed a slip of paper with their exam dish, and escorted to their station. My friend from Turkey gets stuck with the rabbit, and another friend with the veal chops. So far, so good (for me, anyway). As I’m handed my paper, I quickly calculate which dish I should expect. Neither the duck with gnocchi, nor the poached chicken have been drawn. I open my paper: poached chicken! This should be a breeze. Still, I’m nervous.
I try to slow myself down; I have five minutes to thoroughly check my ingredients. After the exam starts, if I realize something is missing, I cannot ask for it. But everything is here. I turn on my oven, thinking how unfortunate it would be to forget to preheat it.
Chef had warned us about this dish before the exam: It seems simple, but it’s actually one of the hardest because you have to creatively inject flavor into a bland recipe. I start by preparing my chicken, removing the feathers, the feet, and the head. Then I dunk it in a court bouillon, a pot of boiling water, seasoned with vegetables and salt and pepper. I let the chicken cook while I work on the rest of the dish.
I sauté the dried rice (just good ‘ole Uncle Ben’s) with butter and onions before adding water and putting the pan in the oven. But as I open the oven door, I don't feel the normal eyebrow-synching heat, so I stick in my hand. The oven is just warm enough to crawl in and take a comfortable nap.
My timing is entirely thrown off. It will take another 20-30 minutes to get the heat up to the proper temperature. I look around the kitchen and spot an unused, pre-heated oven. Chef gives me an approving nod, and I shove in my pan.
When I think my chicken is done, I grab my tuning fork (so named because when tapped, it sounds a perfect middle C), and stick it into its … derrière: If the juices run clear, it’s thoroughly cooked. But somehow I forget that the water boiling inside the cavity will flood out, which it does, scalding my right hand. It’s blistering, but if I let go of the chicken, I fear a Julia Child moment. There’s no time for ice; I have to keep moving.
Before I can start my sauce, I have to wait for the chicken to cook, because the recipe includes the broth created from the cooking water. Like mad, I whisk my butter and flour into a roux, then add spoonfuls of the court bouillon and lots of salt, white pepper, and cream. The clock is ticking, and I’m amazed to see my friends steadily progressing, even though they’re cooking the more complex rabbit and veal dishes. I have one of the easier dishes—why am I racing the clock?
After my chicken rests for twenty minutes, it is still piping hot. I have to remove the skin but cannot wait for it to cool. Luckily, I already burnt the hell out of my right hand, so I can’t feel as much as I normally would. Once all the skin has been peeled off (the chicken, not my hand), I have to cut the ends of the thighbones with scissors. I try to stabilize the chicken with one hand and cut with the other, but the chicken is too hot and slippery to stabilize, and my hand is not strong enough to get through the knobby bone. I use both hands and clamp down as hard as I can. The end of the bone launches across the room, catching the assistant’s eye. She gives me a sympathetic but nervous look.
I’ve got ten minutes left. I remind myself that for every minute my dish is late, I’m docked two percent. I check the rice in my adopted oven and fluff it a bit. Still a little crunchy, so I add some water and let it cook another few minutes. My classmates are already plating, and I’m again wondering what’s taking me so long. I whisk together my sauce and pull the rice out of the oven, then add half a stick of butter and a generous pinch of salt (beware when you dine out!).
I arrange the rice in a little bed on an oval-shaped silver platter. Two minutes. I rest the chicken on top of the rice and coat the bird with white sauce. Ten seconds. I pour a river of sauce around my rice. Time. I dump the rest of my sauce into a small porcelain pitcher to accompany the platter, throw on a pinch of fleur de sel, and shove my dish onto the presentation table. C’est fini!
The dishes are numbered. The judges are waiting outside. We must quickly pack up our knives and equipment, and exit. On the way out, something inside my chicken catches my eye. I poke my friend: Did I miss a piece of trussing string, or is that just part of the chicken? He reassures me it’s definitely part of the chicken.
I walk out of the exam relieved that it’s over, but with a scalded right hand and chicken blood on my left shoe. I know my dish was hot and the sauce was good, but I wish I had had a few more minutes to perfect the presentation (bits of remaining skin is not a good look for poached chicken). My classmates and I congregate in the locker room and strip out of our sweaty, dirty uniforms for the last time. If we failed the exam, we will receive a call informing us not to attend the graduation ceremony.
Two days have passed, and it’s now graduation day. I haven’t received a phone call. But I imagine how awkward it might be if somebody had tried to reach me and I had missed it. Luckily, there’s a diploma with my name. The head chefs call each of us up, one by one, and we receive our diplomas, a sturdy handshake, and a quick photo. After the ceremony, we celebrate in the classroom with Champagne and hors d’oeuvres. The Chefs plunk their tall hats on us for a few more photos.
I spend my last night in France with good friends from Le Cordon Bleu, dining at a casual restaurant behind the Arc de Triomphe. It’s cold and dark, and we’re all exhausted. My friends head home, but I’ve had my eye on the George V hotel since I arrived. I hail a cab for one last solo nightcap before heading back to the U.S. The Georges V’s storybook interior is strewn in twinkling lights. Ornate Christmas trees line the marble entryway, like the grand ballroom where The Beast took Belle for a spin. I sink into a cozy chair by the fireplace and order a pot of tea, the only item less than 35 Euros. But it’s the best tea I’ve ever had. Maybe it’s the antique silver teapot, or maybe it’s the tiny chocolates and cake presented alongside. Or maybe it’s just this moment: Paris and me, my head filled with memories. I lounge for a few hours, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the people passing by.
It’s now 1 a.m., and my cab driver whips me around the back of the Champs Elysee, through all the maddening late-night traffic. He asks, in French, how I got to Paris, so I launch into the two-minute version of my story. He’s from Laos, and finds my adventure courageous. As he drops me off, he wishes me luck and asks if I’m going home or out to another party. My solo tea party was wild enough for me: It’s time to tuck myself in. Before speeding away, he calls, “Ne rate pas ton vol!!” Don’t miss your flight.