Practical Two: Behind the Scenes

As I mentioned in some of my previous posts, this last week ended with our second practical and theory exam!  Since I didn’t provide lots of details on my last exam, I figured I would write up a detailed post on the whole experience.  A play-by-play, if you will…

Before I even started culinary school, the entire idea of practical exams were a bit foreign to me.  I had a vague idea of what they might involve, but that’s about it.  And since every school does them a bit differently, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

culinary school kitchen

Our first practical exam mainly consisted of various components.  But not an actual dish!  This past week’s second practical exam was a three course meal.  Pretty different, no?  And a lot more intimidating! 

Luckily, leading up the exam, we get some hints about what dishes we will be expected to produce on the big day.  Comforting, but still nerve-wracking!  Here’s a rough idea of how the day goes to any one curious out there!  

6:00 – 7:00 AM 

Right before class, we set up the classroom for the exam.  Since everyone is working individually and responsible for the organization and cleanliness of our station, each of our tables is divided in half with tape to mark our space!  Everyday items, such as salt, butter, cutting boards, and a utensil holder are also allowed to be set up.  Everything else we need has to be grabbed by ourselves throughout the exam!

culinary school classroom

7:00 – 7:30 AM

We all congregate in our classroom to get a break down of the day’s exam!  We also turn in our recipe notebooks for grading—which the other day included 82 new recipes!  In just eight weeks, we have filled it with a little bit more than 139 recipes! 

Since this practical involved many more components and techniques, the whiteboard was filled with our grading criteria!  For each dish, we get graded on multiple components, such as “consistency,  temperature, execution/technique, presentation, & seasoning/taste

When each of us are done cooking all of our food, we tell our assistant, Ashley, who writes our names  in order on the board at the front of the kitchen.  Since we all could and (inevitably) do finish roughly around the same time, a lot of names can get up on the board quickly!  This adds in the tricky part—holding—where you need to figure out a way to keep all your food hot (and not let it overcook or dry out) before plating it together once the chefs come over to evaluate your dishes! 

My stomach is always full of nerves at this point in the day!  Once they explain the menu, they give us our deadline time (we have three hours to complete the menu) and we all grab our knives and head into the kitchen!

knife bag

7:30 – 10:30

Right when we get into the classroom, we all pretty much head to the dish and equipment area to grab everything we need for the day’s menu!  My general strategy involves getting everything I’ll need for plating – dishes, cutlery, glasses, & napkins/straws – and putting it out of the way on the bottom shelf of my worktable. 

I still find it really amazing how much more organized we all are since those first days of French onion soup and simple salads!  At that point, we were completely lost and grabbing all those important things at the last minute!  I definitely know now that you should try to make the last 30 minutes of service go as smooth as possible (since it is always hectic) by not putting those types of details off. 

practical exam dish

Our biggest lead item of the day was getting our mise en place together for our main course.  

practical exam

This picture wasn’t actually from exam day, but pretty close in concept!

Another item that I put together at the beginning was our first course soup, which luckily can be made and put aside until service.  I wasn’t too worried about this dish, but it does involve being careful with some of the details.

practical exam

Practical 2: 1st Course Soup –after my chefs dug into it a bit!

Though it sounds like a lot, the three hours go by extremely quickly! 

As seems to be the theme of all practical exams, the first two hours go relatively smoothly and I initially feel pretty organized about the amount of time left to finish and plate everything.  Then all of a sudden, I end up glancing at the clock to realize that I only have 45 minutes left to the deadline and I still had a lot of components to finish up.  

floating island

Practical 2: Dessert

As you can tell, this is the most nerve-wracking period of the whole exam!  The component I was most worried about at this point was my protein, which I had already seared, but wasn’t cooking through quickly enough in the oven.  I also had to make time to let it rest before slicing and serving.  Though I was worried I might end up over-doing it, I ended up running to grab another sauté pan and seared it again on both sides to help speed up the process. 

At this time, I had already gotten the rest of my dish components completed (besides plating) and called my name, which ended up being third on the list.  Then comes the waiting game…

Luckily, I was able to pull it all off in time and ended up finishing third in my class with about 7-8 minutes to spare.  Next up was the evaluation…

culinary school practical exam

Practical Results

I wasn’t sure of how I did when the Chef Brian & Chef Somchet came over to evaluate my dishes!  I felt like I had cooked my protein well (which I was felt very relieved by, given the fact that I had to scramble and improvise to even get it cooked in time), my soup was relatively good, and I felt fairly confident in my dessert.

Overall, I ended up being very happy with how I did on the exam!  I was happy with my first practical results, but definitely beat up myself up for my  mistakes on the last one, so it was a nice feeling at the end of the day.  

They also both told me that my attention to detail for presentation is very good.  This is was another really nice thing to hear as well, since its an aspect of cooking I really enjoy.   We’ll find out our official grades next week!  

culinary school kitchen

After cleaning up the kitchen (another task evaluated as part of our exam grade), we took a short break before taking out second theory test!  Luckily, it ended on another good note, because I felt confident at the end of the day. 

Hope you all enjoyed this behind-the-scenes peek into our monthly practical exams.  Have a great rest of the weekend!