I looked to the wall on the right, seeking out the analog clock hanging from the wall. My glasses were so full of grease splatters and sticky fingerprints that I couldn't make out the black hands encased in the clear plastic face that ticked a mere fifteen feet from my station. I wiped my hands on my apron and pulled the frames from my face, right to left, releasing a small drip of sweat waiting to run down the crease of my nose. A quick swipe on a stained towel did the trick well enough for me to make out the time: 8:16 pm.
Monday, October 25th at 8:16 in the evening. I never truly thought I would make it this far, this mythically obsessed-about evening in time when my fate would be permanently sealed. Sure, I spent hours upon hours fantasizing about it: what recipes I would get, how I would feel, what would go wrong. Yet I was never realistic with myself about the brevity of the exam, and what it meant to the past ten months and my future career. And here I was, a full two hours and sixteen minutes into one of the most important nights of my life and I was feeling…calm. Relaxed. Confident.
I was scheduled to serve the bass at 9:09 pm, so I took a deep breath, letting the hot air reach the deep corners of my lungs, while I surveyed my station. Student #A6: Bass with Sea Urchin Sauce and Green Apple Charlotte. Potatoes: roasted. Baby fennel: cooked. Pickled tomatoes: drained. My next dish, the Charlotte, was supposed to be served at 9:57 pm, so I surveyed my mental checklist again. Ladyfingers: Piped and baked. Charlotte: formed. Green apple Bavarian cream: cooked and molded. Red currant sauce: cooled and bottled. I felt my blood pressure drop, causing my head to feel light while my heart skipped a beat as I came to the best realization of the night…I was practically done. 8:16 pm and I was already on the home stretch.
Before I knew it, we were being swept down the concrete hallway in numerical order, past portraits of the school's distinguished faculty and towards the deafening sound that only a standing ovation can produce – a creak as the back of your legs push the chair behind you and scrape a dent in the wooden floor, a swish as the paper you were holding sways through the air and hits the tablecloth and the unmistakable clap as one fleshy palm of skin meets another in a calculated impact. I was met at the threshold of the room with a glass of chilled champagne and wide grins from no less than twenty of the city's most famous chefs and food professionals, congratulating us all on a most successful night. It was like the end of a mid-90s romantic comedy, played in slow motion as Prince Charming finally kisses the Princess, and you just know in your heart that they will live happily ever after.
According to the judges, my fish was cooked immaculately, my sauce was delicious and my Charlotte was picture-perfect. I let my eyes gloss over as they critiqued the other students, taking my exhausted brain to an open-eyed dream where I felt myself reaching, struggling then finally grasping an unnamed prize; a present; a want; an accomplishment. And then it was over, six hours had passed like six minutes, and we all headed to the local watering hole to celebrate and say our goodbyes.
The next afternoon, amongst our peers, friends and loved ones we each ceremoniously had the toque, the tall creased French chef's hat, placed on our heads and our Grand Diplomes handed to us in shining leather booklets. I was also given a silver French Culinary Institute lapel pin to adhere with pride on my chef's jacket as an indication that I was one of the students who graduated with distinction, with a cumulative GPA of above 95%.
While a large chapter of my life closes heavy and obvious like the cover of a dusty dictionary, I happily place it back on the shelf, cataloging the good with the bad on the back of my soul. I smooth my hair down, adjust my apron and reach for the next book to start a new story.
The prince got his girl. The cat got her mouse. And the chef got her toque. Happily ever after.