We were all standing around the front of the classroom watching our fill-in Chef for the night - an Italian woman who is a foot shorter and 20 pounds lighter than me yet looks like she could bring a jail of murderers to tears – demonstrate the particulars of the lemon tart dough. There was no laughing, no smiling and absolutely no breathing; we were all on our best behavior, standing straight up with our arms crossed behind our backs listening intently. All of a sudden, the door opens and one of my classmates walks in…30 minutes late. "Are you in this class?" she asked him. "Yes Chef, I'm sorry I'm late." "Stand there and shut up…you and I are going to have a conversation later." Ohhhhhh snaaaapppppp. There was a collective sharp intake of breath, and when she dismissed us to our stations to get started we all miraculously found something to do to stick around the front of the room and witness the carnage. As I was unnecessarily inspecting a leek, I kept thanking my stars that I had been on time (unlike last Friday…)
We started our first dish, grilled salmon fillets with a white wine sauce, served with sautéed spinach and roasted mixed mushrooms. My partner handled the fish this time, so I started the sauce. It was going beautifully; Chef even came around, tasted it and said it was "delicious." Soon enough, it was done cooking so I kept it warm in a water bath. I sautéed each of the three types of mushrooms separately: oyster, domestic and shitake, then stuck them in the oven to roast. The last stop was the spinach, which was quick and easy: high heat, smashed garlic and a little oil/butter mix, throw them in and take them out when they're starting to wilt. Chef also tasted my spinach, and made an "mmm" face, slowly nodding her head. Ok, she's loving it, good start. By this time, we were down to the wire, with only minutes until presentation time. We got our plates nice and warm, my partner seared the salmon on the grill and we began to plate: a pile of spinach, a pile of mixed mushrooms, a salmon fillet. We grabbed the warm sauce, still shimmering in its delicious glory, and at the last second poured a nice channel around the plate and over the fish. It was beautiful, and we were so proud to present it (and couldn't wait to eat it). Wait a minute…something's wrong…very wrong. As Chef was walking around checking out our dishes, she screamed at us, "You're missing your herbs!" Oh s*$@, we forgot to put the minced parsley, chervil and chives in the sauce and finish it with a few squirts of lemon juice. We hadn't even gotten the herbs out of the fridge yet, nevertheless cut them down into tiny specs to throw into our sauce BEFORE plating it. We frantically ran to the refrigerator, grabbed the herbs and chopped them haphazardly, sprinkling them on as much of the sauce on our plate as possible. We both knew we had ruined it – the flavor of the herbs makes the sauce what it is, and the lemon juice neutralizes the flavor. It was too late, so we had to just let it go. She took out her fork, took a piece of salmon and dipped it in the sauce, placing it slowly in her mouth with a look of complete dissatisfaction. She swallowed the whole thing, which is more than I expected, and was silent…then it started. "No. This isn't right, you've ruined it." Oh crap. "I'm not even going to taste this, it's terrible. I'm not going to lie to you…" she paused, and then she walked away. We were bruised, big time. My partner took three of the plates (I guarded one of them) and they went straight into the compost bin. All of that work, the great encouragement along the way, the perfectly seasoned spinach and the roasted and browned mushrooms. It was all ruined because of a moment of brief forgetfulness. It hurt, oh how it hurt. I felt such a need to impress this miniature Chef, I was longing for her approval, and she wouldn't even look me in the eyes.
We had a short pow wow, vowing to leave this behind and concentrate on making our next dish, bass cooked en papillote (in paper), the best we've ever made. Since we had about 20 minutes, we had already made the tomato fondue, the mushroom duxelle and the meticulously julienned celery, carrots and leeks, cooked a l'etuvee. (We had done all of this as we were ruining our salmon…) We prepared the parchment paper, and placed a pile of tomato and a pile of mushrooms, covered it with a fillet and draped the julienned vegetables over the top. It is finished with a splash of white wine and a thyme sprig and then sealed and folded with an egg wash. After a few minutes, our bags were puffed nicely, meaning the fish had cooked, so we took them out and threw the whole thing onto plates as fast as possible. Chef approached us, gave us a look like, "I should just skip you" and broke open one of the bags. I detected a hint of change in her face, yet she still wasn't saying anything. She took another bite, gathering up as many of the fillings as she could fit on her fork. She opened another bag, and poked around some more. Finally, she looked at us. "It's good. It's very good." Oh. My. God. My partner and I smiled at each other, and I felt a relief like none I have ever felt since starting school. Apparently my partner was feeling a little bold, because he said what we were all thinking. "Have we redeemed ourselves?" he asked quickly. She snorted, shrugged and said, "Yes, I'd say you have." As she walked away, assistant Chef Janet gave us a smile and a wink.
I decided that I really, really like this new Chef. She was tough, like a drill sergeant, but the desire inside of me to impress her drove me to make one of my best dishes ever. I honest-to-God witnessed her stick her finger into a pot of boiling water, taste it and say, "This is not salted enough….did you even taste this water?!" As she walked around the room, yelling at various groups, "You're doing that wrong," "Why are you doing that?" and "Stop that right now," I also noticed something I hadn't before – for every criticism she doled out, she had about three positive comments to make as well. I remembered that she had come to me, looked inside my pan of mushrooms and said, "Those have a great color on them, good job." Or how she watched Garde Manger cut their vegetables, commending them on their knife skills. Her strict personality and demeanor had caused me to only remember the negative and assume the worst, making me nervous and fidgety. I didn't realize, however, that she is actually incredibly supportive and helpful; she just doesn't put up with any antics (or someone not following directions). In fact, I'd like to think she's like the smaller, older and wiser version of the Chef I hope to be some day.
For now, we say goodbye to fish. Next, it's on to Saucier, where we'll make Julie Child's favorite: Beef Bourguignon. Chef gave us a lecture about how we're no longer students, we're cooks - no more following recipes exactly and down to the minute; we're expected to adjust, add and change until we're happy with the result. Isn't that a valuable life lesson? If you're not happy with the result, just adjust, add and change. But never forget the herbs…God help you if you forget the herbs.