Poached Chicken

*To my loyal readers: I am back from France, but I still want to share the final chapters of my adventures. Since my return, I have been busy teaching cooking classes, hosting French soirée-themed dinner parties, and perfecting a chewy, airy, buttercream-filled macaron. I have also just arrived in India to help open the first pop-up restaurant in Kolkata . . . stay tuned. Thank you for your readership! And now, back to France . . .

 We are perky heading into our first week, amazed at our capacity to keep up with our intensive course schedule: classes Monday-Saturday, ending as late as 9 p.m. But it’s getting darker and colder outside, and we’re all ready to hibernate for the winter, or at least take a 24-hour nap.

Our first chef had been amiable, but today’s chef is austere. Before he allowed us to enter the kitchen, he lined us up to evaluate each of our uniforms: Is it clean? Ironed? Stained from yesterday’s vegetable soup? Because we always get home late at night and start early in the morning, there isn’t much time for spot treating and pressing our uniforms, so I adjusted my hand towel to cover a little stain on my apron, and Chef let me skate past.

Today we’re making a poached chicken with rice and sauce suprême (similar to a béchamel). It’s white-on-white-on-white, and at first glance, could easily be mistaken for hospital food. Our first lesson in preparing a whole bird involves chopping off its head. French butchers always leave the head on their animals so their customers are sure of the animal they’re buying; a rabbit versus a cat. After removing the head, we gut the bird, french the bones, and flambé the outside. Then, to hold its limbs close to its body, we take a giant needle and truss the chicken, which is tricky for all of us. The Chef wants us to truss a specific way, but nobody can get it right: Did the needle go above or below the left leg? Where did the string come out? Is the cavity entirely closed? I imagine first-year medical interns, also uniformed in white, having similar conversations.

Once our chickens are fully prepped, they’re laid to rest in a huge pot of boiling water, seasoned with vegetables, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile, we make our rice and start the sauce suprême, adding a bit of the chicken stock from the pot. To finish, we whisk in some butter. Then add some more butter. Then cream. And more cream. And more butter. And more cream. And finally, more butter. Parfait.

We plate on a large, silver-serving tray: The poached, glazed chicken sits atop an oval-shaped bed of rice, encircled with a moat of sauce suprême. Strict garnishing rules govern this French dish: Greens may not be added — no sprinkle of parsley, no artfully splayed chives, no bed of lettuce. Nothing. Considering the gargantuan proportions of butter, cream, and salt it looks and tastes a little bland.

At the end of class, Chef reviews our dishes, then pipes in with a life lesson: Your dishwasher is part of your team — do not give them burned pans. To spare our dishwashing team the hours it would take to scrub caramelized sauces or scalded cream from the bottoms of our saucepans, we learn a little trick: Add an inch of water to the pan and bring it to a boil for ten minutes. This releases the grime and makes it easier to scrub the pot clean.

By the end of the day, six of the ten of us are swaddled in bandages, from either nearly slicing off a finger or grabbing a piping hot pan, and two are in tears from a combination of stress and exhaustion. Today, I don’t fall into either of those categories, but it’s still early in the game.