I’ve been putting off writing about the Superior Cuisine final exam in some ways as it marks the end of my journey at Cordon Bleu. It’s hard to believe that 3 years ago I had a dream to earn my Cuisine Diploma at the famous French school and now that dream has become reality. I suppose with any accomplishment one sets out to achieve the moment you attain it is a bit bitter sweet for although you’ve dreamt of the moment arriving it’s fleeting when it does.
From the basics of chopping vegetables to advanced butchery skills, I’ve learned so much and I needed to bring all my focus to this last hurdle. The final cooking exam is 4 hours long and believe me, every minute of that four hours was required. We would cook our own recipes for the exam from a “panier” or basket of ingredients given to us 2 weeks earlier.
There were restrictions of course, with specific ingredients that must be used. Venison, oysters, foie gras, red kuri squash, trumpet mushrooms and 30 cm long tubular macaroni. Macaroni? Isn’t that Italian? Having not used macaroni through any of the lessons it definitely was there to challenge the class. Another specific instruction was to deliver one of three different sauces, Diane, Grand Veneur or Poivrade Sauce.
Prior to the exam we were to hand in a dossier in French of the dishes we would prepare including a drawing or photo of the plating for the dish. We were to cook and plate 4 identical dishes on exam day for a verrine and a main course for the judges.
I spent hours painstakingly reviewing the ingredient list wondering what I would do with oysters. Forgive me please but I really don’t like them, as I find them overly salty and fishy. As I had little experience with oysters, I wanted to keep the verrine rather simple so I decided on a Mediterranean theme of ceviche. The base was a fresh tomato jelly topped with oyster ceviche and a delicate little tomato rose.
The main course of venison filet and shoulder I would prepare two ways, roasted and braised respectively, with accompaniments of one composed fruit garnish and two simple vegetable garnishes. The villainous item in the panier, the long tubular macaroni would become a trumped up mac & cheese. I do mean trumped up with trumpet mushroom ragout!
I was determined to practice a few untested theories on my dishes before the atelier to ensure I would not be in a huge mess. Finding venison shoulder turned out to be a bit of a hunting expedition (pardon the pun). My good friend Gigi (aka Cindy) was visiting me in Paris and was up for a challenge and agreed to seek out the venison shoulder while I was in class. What a sweetheart!
I sent her off to a butcher that was reputed on the internet to have game, but when she arrived the butcher shop was a now hair salon. Although she spoke not a word of French she managed to convey what her quest was about and the hair stylist phone up his good friend and owner of the chic Mora cooking emporium for advice. She procured the name of another butcher near the Opera, but it was too late that evening so she returned with the name only. More than enough for me!
I managed to trudge over to the butcher and purchase the venison shoulder between classes on Friday and was happy to pay the shocking 40-euro price for 1 kilo. This recipe better be good if I’m going to spend this much to practice! Then it was off to the Bon Marche to hopefully find the macaroni. No such luck, but I did procure a gluten free tubular corn pasta allowing me at least to taste the flavours.
On Sunday, after a brief visit to the market, a lesson from the oyster vendor on shucking oysters and purchasing the remaining fresh ingredients, all was ready. I set up my knives and pots in my little Parisian kitchen to begin experimenting from my recipes. Verrines were tested, red kurri squash parmetiers abandoned, venison shoulder braised deliciously and macaroni tossed in gluten free mornay sauce. Some success some disasters, so back to the beginning on a few recipes that would have to be test run in the atelier.
On exam day, I was nervous but confidently excited. I was so fortunate to cook in one of the small kitchens with only 4 other students so we had plenty of workspace. Chef allowed me into the kitchen 5 minutes early to set up but I didn’t need much time as I’d wrapped all my knives in a tea towel inside my case and had simply to unzip it and transfer them to a tray. I tacked up my timing plan and my recipes and set to work.
First off, I created my oyster ceviche verrines from start to finish. As the tomato jelly had to set before the ceviche could be set on top it seemed the most effective to tackle first. I peeled the tomatoes, pureed them, added softened gelatin sheets and poured the liquid evenly into each of the four verrines. The oysters were not the same varietal as the ones I’d used in the market and I was having a difficult time opening but the chef kindly gave me a quick demo, which set me on the right path. Chopped oysters, parsley, chives, onion, lime and garlic set aside to marinade in preparation for plating.
Next the kuri squash was peeled, chopped and set to cook in simmering water, pears peeled and poached in a sugary syrup with cardamom, star anise and cloves and all the aromatics for the sauce chopped. I trimmed up my venison filet and was delighted to find I had a very large piece so I used the extra in my venison braise guaranteeing extremely tender meat. Who would be the wiser if I used all the shoulder as well?
I set a large baking tray on two burners and filled it with water from a measuring cup to cook the macaroni. I cleverly decided to cut the long macaroni in the pot before removing to avoid breaking it, which worked out perfectly. I began making my mornay sauce, which would not be gluten free, but I would have to taste to ensure it was seasoned and just hope not to feel ill later.
Any French chef will tell you a good sauce takes time, and my grand veneur sauce would require a good 40 to 60 minutes. I browned the bones and bits while I worked on the macaroni. Adding the aromatic veggies and stock; I then left it to bubble away over low heat.
All was coming together nicely and the final challenge would be properly timing the cooking and resting of the venison filet while ensuring all the elements for the 4 plates was ready. I was getting down to the wire in fact with only 30 minutes to go when I started my filet. I still had to cook my foie gras! It sounds like a lot of time, however getting 3 garnishes and two protein items and sauces on the plates is no small feat, especially with your chef standing over you with 15 minutes until you are to be serving!
The scramble was on! Verrines were first as all was ready, the jelly set perfectly, the ceviche marinated and little tomato roses set in place. As they whisked out to the judges, I turned my attention to the four empty plates. 8 minutes cried Chef!
OMG! Pumpkin puree first on, slide on the prepared with macaroni gratin. Now slip the poached pear onto the plate and dress with crushed savory walnuts. Check the grand veneur sauce, and add more salt. Place larges pieces of the braised shoulder in their sauce on the plate. Spoon a generous tablespoon or two of the sauce on the plate, slice the rested venison and set on top.
Then disaster! Dora, who was to serve before me was not done so I had to wait. She was totally panicking, burning her sauce and ready to break down. I stood by trying to be supportive but my food was getting cold which made me less than happy. She finally pulled it together although several minutes late which cost her marks.
When she looked close to finishing I sautéed my foie gras and set on the poached pear. Final touch; arrange a crispy salsify chip on the foie gras just in time for chef to say you must serve! Success! The assistant collected my 4 plates and dashed away to the judges and my fate was now in their hands.
I was so proud that I didn’t panic or succumb to the pressure. I had done my best and I knew I would pass. Without a doubt is was a great deal of fun to cook in the final exam that I hadn’t expect. I was exhilarating from start to finish and I will always fondly remember this final time in the kitchen at Cordon Bleu in Paris. Aurevoir!