Monday, 27 June 2011

Back for Intermediate

Hi everyone,

Apologies for neglecting my blog the past few weeks and leaving everybody hanging over my exam day.

The past two weeks, despite not being at school and reprieved briefly from 6am starts, has been a busy time nonetheless. Between job hunting, cousins visiting, and tieing up various odds and ends (haircut excluded!), I'm looking forward to resuming at Le Cordon Bleu for my intermediate cuisine certificate course tomorrow and getting back into the kitchen.

The week before the exam was spent mostly on classic desserts, I'd been dreading the module for a while and it didn't disappoint. The numbers of cuisine students nodding off during demonstrations was at an all time high as we were taught the various temperatures needed for sugar work and the difference between soft and hard peak stages when whisking egg whites among other useful desserty type things. We made choux pastry, mine failed of course, and my pastry curse continued. This didn't impact my confidence too badly for my exam, I knew the dish inside out. Give me a piece of meat to transform any day, you can keep your eggs thank you very much!

I dug up some of the least disastrous desserts:

And then exam day arrived.

We assembled at 7:30ish for our 8am start. Two minutes before getting started on the 15 minute pre-exam recipe and technique test I remembered I'd left both my paring knives in my bag as I'd taken them home the night before to slay some more vegetables. Close one.

We drew numbers out of a hat to determine our location in the kitchen and starting time. I was hoping for an earlier number to get it over and done with but ended up with number nine, the second to last start time in the corner of the kitchen. Luckily for me I'd been on the station before and knew it had a faulty element that would go thermonuclear even if turned on to one. Not a great start, one of my two elements out of action, things would have to get clever...unless my usual kitchen buddy Jake hadn't landed in station ten and shared like we're used to.

I paced around for an hour until it was my turn to start, then got amongst it. My nerves evaporated as soon as set about carving my chicken, and time flew. Plating my dish in a near empty, quiet kitchen was a change from the usual carnage of people yelling for seasoning. Chef counted down constantly: "Number nine you can now present....number nine you have two minutes". I had intended to present my dish five minutes early but changed my mind and spent those five minutes on my plating, my presentation being notoriously bad in the past. I presented my dish and left greatly relieved, and quite confident that there weren't any major issues with it. At the same time I knew that in the past when I'd thought I'd nailed it something was wrong, and vice versa.

I went to school the next week and was told I'd passed, more relief.

The school hosted a graduation dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair which was incredible. The food was really impressive considering the number of people they served banquet style, the kitchen must have been carnage. The starter was a trio of salmon, smoked, gravlax and seared with a fennel salad and some tiny blinis with caviar and a miscellaneous sauce. The main was my favourite of course: beef fillet with some sort of potato, micro carrots and a ravioli which made the dish. Dessert was nice, some sort of caramelized white chocolate mouse with some sorbet and raspberries and things. Afterwards there were some speeches and then we all crossed the stage, shook the chefs hand and got our certificates. 

Can't wait for term two...

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Black Hole of London

I write this blog after a few hours turning a kilogram or two of carrots into dinky little torpedoes, while watching the test cricket on my laptop and the French Open final on TV. It's been quite a pleasant afternoon all things considered apart from the rain. Conveniently both the cricket and tennis are both rain delayed so I might as well write about my penultimate week of basic cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu.

This week I've had a few days off to prepare for my exams next week, I dutifully decided therefore to give the exam dish a full practice run through and prepare a grand feast for three others. It was going to be a challenging task, this I knew full well......

I was going to have to conquer the dish entirely on a thirty centimetre circular chopping board on a piece of cleared bench space the size of a magazine. This is the only space in the kitchen dedicated to preparing food for human consumption, well that space and the gas hobs, but then the gas hobs are used for cooking cat food as well. I would have to dance around the kitchen placing pots and pans on chairs, dodging bowls of cat food on the floor, using my own utensils and bowls just in case I put food in a container used to make Boris/Izzy/Cosmo/Theo/Cleo's duck and prawn stir fry the night before. It was certainly going to be interesting.

Scene of Battle

Little did I know it wasn't just the kitchen that was going to cause me problems. I would have to overcome challenges born from the suburb of London where I live, namely can one even buy a fresh chicken and stock that doesn't come in cube form in Streatham?

My shopping experiences around the place hadn't been very extensive as I'd been reduced to going from store to store most evenings after 7pm in an attempt to buy discounted ready-made sandwiches in an effort to save money. Occasionally when I've felt extravagant I've wandered into an "upmarket" store (a relative term of course) and bought a wheel of cheese and maybe even some salami, but now I was going to have invest in a whole chicken.

So it was with trepidation I set off shopping for ingredients for my exam run through. Soon enough I formed a conclusion that had been circling in mind for the past few weeks that I've been living here.

I live in a Black hole....... a culinary black hole.

Good food does not exist this far south of London.

Walk in any direction from my house for twenty minutes and all you will encounter is:

1. One of 650,000 'Polski Schlep' , these are Polish themed and named corner stores containing nothing at all Polish, and run by enterprising Indian men attempting to profit from Streathams reputation as 'Poland Central'.

Keys to store ownership #101: Cover all bases at all costs

2. Numerous variations of "Chicken Cottage", "Dallas Chicken'n'Ribs",  and "etcChickenetc". NB: these are a huge downgrade on KFC and KFC is...well... You know what I mean.

One side of the road.....

....and the other

3. One of the five or so huge name brand supermarkets that have "Local" or "Everyday" or "Express" versions of themselves around the place. These are basically small, more useless versions of their hypermarket cousins. They are slightly larger than corner stores and contain just as little (as opposed to much), sadly it is in these stores where I buy most of my food. Why don't these name brand stores have any ambition to be as good as the bigger boys and pack themselves full of goodies? Some recognizable products rather than home-branded versions of everything from trifle to Thai salad. Maybe it's the area, maybe people around here want Tesco brand quiche lorraine for two in three minutes instead of a deli counter and a fishmonger.

Supermarket run out of chillies? Don't panic, head to your local Mobile Sales & Service.

Ambition, maybe that's it. Does nobody around here aspires to anything food-wise? Is it merely just a means to fill you up that happens to come out of a packet, which invariably comes out of a freezer?

Apparently the death of food and the death of Streatham is the councils fault. People used to come from miles around to go to the only Marks & Spencer south of the river, but when the application to expand the carpark was rejected M&S left and it's been downhill ever since. Never mind that, the lady I live with is very excited that a new Moroccan restaurant called "Marrakesh Sunrise" has opened down the road, apparently they sell falafel...

I discovered there isn't a single butcher for miles, so if I was to buy a fresh chicken it had to come from a chain store. After checking out a few stores that had the same brand of chicken I eventually gave in and bought one. When I got home I read the fineprint. "Made from chicken grown and sourced from Thailand".

Finding some chicken stock was harder. I walked into a store and asked a shop assistant if they had any, initially he said they didn't then had a brainwave and disappeared out the back, when he returned with a grin he was carrying a 5kg bag of frozen chicken wings.

I went home with my chicken, stock cubes, vegetables and cream and laid out my knives and ingredients on the table started my stopwatch and began. Everything went to plan perfectly and I found myself with 40 minutes to go, chicken cooked and resting, vegetables turned and ready for glazing, and sauce reducing in the background. I had a tidy up, cleaned my plates, warmed them up as I cooked the vegetables then at the last minute brought my chicken up to temperature in the finished sauce and plated it all. I had to plate them all quickly to ensure everything was hot and then served it to my guests who'd arrived earlier.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Sauce, seasoning and chicken I was very happy with. The vegetables weren't too fantastic, I had rushed through their turning to cook as fast as possible. I now know that in the final exam I can spend more time making sure they are perfect, which brings me back to today: turning carrots while it rains outside. The cricket's been rained off now and Nadal has won the tennis.

Might as well chop a few more carrots...