By Student Blogger Amy Zarichnak
So, have you heard that towards the end of the second semester here at the CIA, that students take a cooking practical?
I just took it.
It’s something you hear about as you start this amazing journey here at the CIA. During your first semester, it’s somewhere between legend and folklore, the way people talk about it. It’s almost like getting cancer, or getting arrested, or perhaps getting robbed: it seems distant, foreign, incredibly unpleasant, and like something that will never happen to you.
Except, unlike all those things, it’s fleeting and without much consequence (unless you fail, and even then there’s support for you), and I’m here to tell you, it’s FAR less painful.
It’s one of those things that you kind of block out and that doesn’t seem like a big deal until it’s right upon you. Then it becomes a VERY big deal. But then after you take it, it’s not a big deal anymore.
However, I had to learn that the hard way.
Oh, I passed. I just didn’t pass with flying colors. Which is exactly the reason that I’m going to give you the lowdown on it, so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Actually, I only made one mistake: I was nervous. VERY, very nervous.
It’s not warranted. The second semester practical IS a big deal. However, it only becomes a BIG DEAL, like it was for me, if you make it such. There are ways to view it, to approach it, and to perform during it that will completely take your nerves away and enable you to embrace the experience as it is meant to be. The second semester practical is in place to ensure that you have enough of the basics down to move forward. That’s all. As we move through school, we are given all the basic technique instructions in Culinary Fundamentals class. Then we move through Meat and Fish classes to give us some background and information on the proteins we’ll be using frequently. Then we start kitchen classes which gives us the opportunity to use those techniques in a multitude of different ways. There’s still that feeling of being a rookie, but as you progress through the kitchen classes you can’t help but feel more and more comfortable with the cooking that you are asked to do.
During the practical, there is a possibility of 6 different entrees plus a soup that you could be assigned. Because you don’t get your assignment until 15 minutes before you start cooking (actually, you pull your menu from a lottery system – a primitive lottery system involving the main protein handwritten on a slip of paper and tossed into a plastic quart container!), you have to come to the practical with ALL the recipes written out for each menu, as well as a timeline of what tasks to complete in what order. As mentioned, you will make a soup, and an entrée, which consists of a protein, two vegetables, and a starch. You get two-and-a-half hours to produce your menu.
It’s not a lot of time. You will use every minute. However, depending upon how organized you are, that will determine whether you are late presenting or not. You cannot be early – you are given the times when you are to serve the soup and the entrée to your grading proctor, and if you are early, points will be taken off. This is because as a chef, you can’t serve things in a restaurant just because you are finished cooking them – there is a sequence that needs to be adhered to, and customers need time to eat first courses, etc., so learning how to time your cooking is important and part of the curriculum here.
Because I’m a bit older, and my education means more to me now than an experience like this would have in my late teens, I was full-bore, completely, utterly, nervous. I have heard that sometimes half a class will fail the practical! I didn’t want to be one of “those” people who failed the practical, nor did I want to deal with scheduling and taking it again and all the nerves and anticipation associated with it. I just wanted to pass.
I pulled roast chicken. It was an entire chicken, roasted, with a pan gravy, pureed potatoes, green beans, glazed beets, and my soup was chicken consommé. I hadn’t made consommé since Culinary Fundamentals – four months prior. Roast chicken was not my forte, either – I’m not very good at trussing a bird. Usually, by the time I’m done tying up a bird, it doesn’t look like I was trying to make it a uniform shape to cook evenly – it usually looks like I was trying to keep it from flying away. There are a lot of things we cook here that you tend to steal glimpses of your fellow students’ techniques to make sure you’re doing it right. In the practical situation, while you are with other students in the same kitchen who are also doing their practical, there may or may not be anyone else with your menu in the room, so you’re essentially on your own. You can’t ask questions and staring at someone else would probably red-flag a proctor to ask you what you’re doing.
There are staggered start times to ease the kitchen crunch a bit. The kitchens are tight and equipment, while abundant, can be in high demand and it might take a few tries to secure a food mill or a mandoline if someone else is using it. The staggered start times also ensure that each proctor – there were two in the room when I took my practical – have the time to evaluate each student’s food.
I was literally shaking as I started. Even though I had every step written down and all I had to do was follow my timeline, I completely choked, right off the bat. I had 3 other people in the kitchen with me and it felt like everyone knew what they were doing but me. My hands shook as I stuffed my bird with herbs and garlic, oiled the skin (which I later learned was a no-no), seasoned it, and stuck it in the oven.
The beets were the next order of business because of how long they take. I got them on to boil.
I was waiting for chicken stock to start my consommé – which needs to simmer for 60 – 90 minutes for full flavor – and it was taking a while to locate some extra because my fellow classmates had used it all (I was the last one to start the practical – because my last name starts with a “Z”!). By the time I received the chicken stock, I realized I was behind on time and that I needed to get this done ASAP, and my timeline was completely upside-down because of the unexpected delay. I started to get REALLY nervous.
Then it happened. I cut the bag of chicken stock to empty it into a pot, it slipped out of my hands, and at least half of it emptied onto the floor before I caught it.
Now, not only was I behind, but I also had a huge, gelatinous, chicken stock mess to clean up.
I went for the mop, and there was no mop. So, I had to laboriously clean it up with a wad of paper towels, going back over it multiple times.
I had lost at least fifteen minutes, which is a lifetime of cooking when you have only two-and-a-half hours.
At this point in time, I knew that I was going to fail. I knew it. However, I also knew that there was a small chance that I wouldn’t. Just because you spill something, does not mean you’re a terrible chef. So, because I am older and have many experiences under my belt, I pulled the only one out that I knew might help me: Three-and-a-half years of acting classes that I took a few years ago. I figured that I might be nervous, and I might be worried, and I might not even be that great of a chef… But if I ACTED like I was calm, cool, and collected, had it together, and knew what I was doing, then at the very least I would communicate that to the proctors and not give them the heads up that I was under immense stress and doubting myself fully during the practical. I figured that if I didn’t give them the clue that I was a complete trainwreck that day that maybe they wouldn’t view me as such. So, I slowed down my actions, looking deliberate and determined, I tasted things and appeared thoughtful even as my mind raced, and I smiled and even made polite small talk with my classmates as I sweated bullets underneath my chef whites.
I finally got the consommé on. Consomme needs to clarify, to have a perfectly clear, fat-free broth with a robust, meaty flavor. Mine was like watered-down chicken stock and I could see the bubbles of fat floating on top. My chicken came out of the oven looking beautiful, but then I wrapped it in foil to stay warm, which softened its beautiful crispy skin. My beets were dying as their glaze became molasses-like as they waited in the pan, warm, for the rest of the meal’s components to be ready. Mashed potatoes – which seems like an easy dish, but at the CIA they need to be PERFECT: Milled through a warmed food mill into a warm bowl, with the right temperature butter and milk and cream added to them so that they don’t become glue-y or cold. The consistency needs to be dead on. It is literally an aligning of the planets when you actually are able to get everything warmed and done right, then transferred to a pastry bag and piped out onto the plate.
As all the components of my meal came together… I realized…. That I might actually pass. My meal wasn’t perfect, but it was servable, it looked nice on the plate, and things tasted okay (well, the consommé was so-so, and the beets were slightly overdone, and I thought the potatoes needed more salt, but it was nothing I would fail over). Again, I summoned those years of acting classes and looked cheerful, and confident as I placed my soup in front of the proctor.
Oh, and one last thing. My proctor? His name is Chef DeShetler. Otherwise known to CIA students taking the practical as “The Executioner.” This man has been with the school for over 30 years, and taught one of my instructors when he was in school back in the day. I wasn’t going to be able to get ANYTHING by him.
I went back to get my entrée to serve him. I sat it down in front of him, also serving one that was supposed to be mine.
He motioned for me to sit down.
“Eat. Taste.” he said to me.
Right. Like I had any appetite at that moment. My mouth felt like sandpaper.
I ate only out of curiosity, to taste what he was tasting, to see what it tasted like as an observer instead of as the person cooking it.
I was pleasantly surprised. I could taste the herbs from the cavity of the chicken in the chicken. I thought it was seasoned well. The potatoes were good, although they needed more salt. The beets were actually delicious. The beans were “meh,” mostly because I didn’t get the best beans from the harvest. They simply were marred and a bit broken, but that wasn’t my fault. The consommé was… passable, but not delicious like I had made several times in Culinary Fundamentals.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
“I think the consommé flavor tastes weak,” I honestly told him.
He pushed the salt towards me. “Add salt,” he instructed.
I added more salt.
“Taste,” he told me.
I tasted it, eyes widening. “Better!” I said. He said, “Absolutely. Sometimes just a bit of salt can bring out a more robust flavor in a dish.”
“You needed more salt,” he said kindly, with a wry smile.
I looked at him and smiled. Executioner? This man was more like my grandfather, gently guiding me.
“What herbs did you put in the chicken?” he asked.
“Rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, garlic, salt and pepper,” I said.
“STUFF IT,” he said. “Stuff a ton of herbs in there. Don’t be afraid. It’s all flavor. Your flavor is too subtle. What do you think about your potatoes?”
“I like them,” I said.
“They’re a little pasty. The texture isn’t quite right. You needed a bit more cream or milk.”
He was being so kind to me. I think I hit the balance of earnest, confident yet humble, and hungry for information just right. I wasn’t being subjected to any kind of curtness or extreme criticism. I was grateful. I had had a rough go of it that morning, but he didn’t know that.
“Your beans are terrible,” he said. Oh, no. Here we go, I thought. He went on, “But it’s not your fault. The quality of the beans is terrible. You didn’t have to use them, you know. You always have that control here. If you don’t like the quality of an item you are given, you can always ask for something else. You don’t have to cook and serve vegetables that look like this.” Wow. I didn’t know that. He empowered me. I had no idea that I had that option while doing the practical. I couldn’t imagine being bold enough to send back an ingredient because it didn’t meet my standards.
“Your beets are good,” he remarked offhandedly. I was shocked. I had heard that he pummeled a classmate of mine the day before for allowing the glaze to thicken too much while they sat. That was one thing he didn’t notice, luckily.
“The skin on your chicken is too soft. You spend all that effort trying to get crispy skin, and then it didn’t work. How did you do it?” he asked.
“I used oil. Someone told me to use oil instead of butter, that it would crisp up better with oil. Should I have used butter? That’s what we used in class…” I rambled to him.
He shook his head and closed his eyes. “Nothing,” he said. “Don’t use anything. Just put it in the oven with nothing on it. You will get the crispiest, most delicious skin you can imagine.”
He was SO sweet to me. As he started to grade and evaluate me, I noticed there were lots of points coming off. It was warranted. My meal was flawed in many areas. But he was so gentle with me, so gentle with my ego, and so great at giving feedback and advice.
“Well,” he said, tallying up my score, “There are places you could have done better. And you didn’t do badly, but there are places for improvement. All in all, you did a good job, and you have a lot of potential, you’re going to be just fine. Just stay curious, keep asking questions, and practice as much as you can.”
“You got a 71,” he added.
I passed. I PASSED!!
“Thank you,” I said to him, gulping. “Thank you.”
I stood up, and all of a sudden, I had the energy that I needed to clean up my area. I passed!! That’s all I wanted to do. I just needed to pass, and I did. I was giddy.
Now, I can’t tell you that I’m pleased with my grade. I tend to be an “A” student, and my performance during my practical and in my two classes leading up to my practical weren’t great. However, I felt like I had overcome the first major hurdle to getting my degree from the CIA. We take another practical during our fifth semester, but now, knowing what it is like, I will feel much more comfortable.
Because here’s the thing: Sure it’s nerve-wracking taking a practical. But I made it worse than it had to be, simply by psyching myself out for it, and believing that I may not be able do it, and going into the situation and being SO nervous. Basically, the proctors are human. They’ve been doing this for years. They give you honest and fair feedback. They allow you to make mistakes. This isn’t a critique, and it’s not personal. It’s an honest evaluation about your skills in the kitchen and what you have learned – and what you still have to learn. Very few people have come out of these classes without learning ANYTHING, so be secure in what you have learned and the knowledge that you have. I believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that if I had just visualized my way through each menu and understood exactly how I was going to do it, that I would have been a lot less nervous, I would have executed the menu with more confidence and efficiency, and I would have felt more comfortable in my own skin that day and wouldn’t have had to resort to old acting techniques to get through it.
So, my advice would be to relax, and slow down. Enroll in school knowing that the second semester practical is part of the deal, and that it will come far sooner than you anticipate. Also know that no one is exempt from taking this. As soon as you see a few people cooking in production kitchens and getting yelled at by their chefs, knowing that they have passed the practical, makes it seem much more do-able. No one here is executing ANYTHING perfectly. It’s a learning environment and that’s why we’re here. And everyone has failures. Amanda Freitag, who is a judge on Chopped and has competed on Iron Chef and was a contestant on The Next Iron Chef, is a CIA alumnus who failed her second semester practical on the first try. This is not a do-or-die situation. If you fail, you get another chance. If you fail, it’s not the end of the world. If you fail, it doesn’t define you, your talents as a chef, or your career.
But you’re not going to fail! Because now you know. Now you know The Executioner is just a warm, cuddly, caring grandpa, and you won’t let him intimidate you.