Day 14: Our First Practical Exam
The fourth week of culinary school ended with our first practical and theory exam. This is a day I’ve been nervous about for days, if not weeks since starting the program. While we’ve been evaluated on a daily basis since day one, it was the first official day where we would be responsible for making multiple dishes or plate components and have them analyzed bite by bite by our three chef instructors.
Luckily, despite the intimidation factor of the first exam, we had a pretty good sense of what we might be expected to make in the kitchen. When we arrived at school on Thursday morning, we were briefly prepped on the day’s expectations, as well as grading criteria.
I’m not allowed to divulge the specific dishes we make for each exam so I’ll be sharing generally what I did and how it felt to take the exam.
Overall, we had three hours to complete everything and have it plated. Once we were ready, we were to raise our hand, our name would be written on the board, and we would be seen by the chefs in that order. Unfortunately, that could mean that half the class could be finished simultaneously and you could easily become 6th or 7th in line. However, this didn’t negate the fact that everything was to be served at the right temperature and cooking consistency!
This added in a “holding” component to the exam as well. As I’ve mentioned before, I am most intimidated by the holding (and consequently timing) aspect of food production. I find it the most stressful part because it involves figuring out when to start cooking items, making ways that you can save a food without it becoming overcooked, dry, or what have you, and plating everything at the right time and temperature. Therefore, despite having three hours, there was an incentive to finish in a timely fashion!
Each component was graded on consistency, taste, seasoning, presentation, temperature and technique. In addition, we were also graded for our overall efficient use of ingredients, sanitation, organization, professionalism, and overall clean-up during and after the exam.
My plates after getting picked apart by the judges!
In the end, I was the first student in my class to be done and ready for my food to be judged by our chefs. Cue the scary part of it all—when all the chefs walked over, clipboards in hand, and literally started picking apart my food one by one, speaking amongst themselves and to me, throughout the process. I felt kinda nauseus at this point, no lie!
Though we haven’t gotten our official grades yet, I am mostly happy with my performance. They were all happy with my knife skills. In addition, my tourneed vegetables came out better than they ever have at home in my own kitchen! Thank god.
My sauce came out well, did not break and had a very good emulsion, but I put in a bit too much cayenne pepper. Again—one of those things I knew (grabbed too big a of a pinch) and expected to be told. In hindsight, I should have just grabbed a spoon and skimmed some of it off, before whisking it together and having it be too late to fix. My vinaigrette also had good flavor, but unfortunately, as a result of sitting for about an hour before judging, was starting to break slightly.
They also said my organization, cleanliness, and my movement throughout the kitchen was excellent. In all honesty, I am a bit disappointed in some of my stupid mistakes on the exam. But I really am trying to focus on what I did well and the fact that my mistakes have taught me lessons for the next practical exam (which I already have anxiety about) and it is not the end of the world. Boiling a potato for an extra minute and not grabbing that extra pinch of cayenne are pretty straight-forward improvements!
After we were all completed, we cleaned up the kitchen and had a short break before taking our theory exam, which was a short-answer exam on all techniques, recipes, and information we’ve learned over the past four weeks. This was fairly easy, so I was happy at the end of the day.
In addition to our exams, other students and I started pulling together mise en place for a Winter Smoke & Grill recreational demonstration class tonight, which I am actually about to head back to school and volunteering to help out! We are making lots of interesting dishes, including smoked goose, mole granita, and homemade ramen noodles.
Should be very informative and fun! I’ll be getting there at 4 pm to help Chef Brian and prep for the 7:00-10:00 pm class. I’m sure a big clean-up will follow, so here’s hoping I don’t get home too late. Tomorrow will be spent celebrating Connor’s 24th birthday!
Hope you are all enjoying the weekend!