Now this is what superior cuisine is all about. The ateliers, or workshops, are longer practical classes in which we create our own recipes with a given ingredient list. Some of those ingredients are obligatory and others optional. During the term we have three ateliers, the last one being a practice for the final exam. Each atelier consisted of a different ingredient list and a different set of parameters. Although they were a bit stressful, I actually had a lot of fun planning and performing the ateliers. Not everything I made was successful, but it was a learning process and one that challenged us in a way that we were never before (including in patisserie). I think the most interesting part was seeing the variety of ideas and plates everyone produced. The ingredient list isn’t very long, so it was amazing to see how unique each dish was. It made me realize how personal and reflective cooking can be. Through each person’s plate you could see one’s character, aesthetics, and sometimes even personal history. Really, quite fascinating.
During our first atelier, or Atelier 13 (13 referring to the practical class number), the required ingredients were: guinea fowl, salmon, king prawns, fingerling potatoes, red bell pepper, spinach leaves, pearl onions, and cultivated mushrooms. With those ingredients we were required to make an entrée (appetizer) and a plat (main dish). Within these two plates we had to have a stuffing, while the main dish had to be accompanied with a sauce, 2 simple garnishes, and 1 composed garnish. Two servings of each dish needed to be plated.
I had a lot of ideas leading up to the day, but I knew from the beginning that I wanted to serve the guinea fowl in the first course and the salmon for my main. Most people did it the other way around, but I wanted to do something a little different. As I was doing some research, I found a chicken velouté from Eleven Madison Park that inspired the entrée that I ended up making: Blanc de Pintade Farci Servi avec Champignons et un Consommé. The dish didn’t turn out the way I expected it to, especially the plating and consommé parts, but flavor wise everything worked. The consommé didn’t work because I didn’t have enough time to clarify my stock. Luckily, the stock that I made was pretty clear to begin with, but technically it wasn’t a consommé because it didn’t go through that process.
The timing for my main dish was way off, because my faux-sommé took so long. I had to make so many things in advance (like my sauce and puree) that they just didn’t hold right when it came time to plate. I wasn’t too happy with my dressage, which looked like I just barfed everything onto the plate, but again the flavors were good and that counts a little bit more in the end.
During this atelier we were given 6 hours to complete our dishes, in the next 5, which is to prepare us for the final exam when we have to finish within 4 hours. The biggest challenge for all of us, I think, is timing. Although 4 hours seems like a lot, in cooking it goes by in a flash. There’s no time to waste and especially no time for mistakes.
For the second atelier, Atelier 18, the mandatory ingredients were: gilt-head sea bream, veal tenderloin, Brittany artichoke, large spinach leaves, raw beet, cauliflower, and new spring onions. Again, we were required to make two servings each of an entrée and a plat. Between the two dishes, we needed to have a vegetable brunoise, while the main dish needed to have a crust of some sort along with a sauce, a vegetable flan and 2 simple garnishes.
For my starter I did two takes on the sea bream-beet root combo. On the left, I served ceviché on top of a roasted beet with fried spring onions and an arugula leaf and on the right I pan fried the sea bream and paired that with sauteed spring onions, pickled beets, and fried garlic. On the side was a little speckling of a simple citrus vinaigrette. I really loved all aspects of this dish starting from aesthetics to concept. My favorite part: the beet pickle. I’m definitely going to start pickling more!
My main dish was more straight forwards and simple: Filet de Veau en Croûte de Pistaches, Flan au Chou Fleur, Chips d’Artichaut, Epinards Sautées, et une Brunoise de Carottes et Poivrons Verts. Nothing too complicated, which is never a bad idea. I seared the pistachio crusted veal and finished cooking it in the oven. With the bones I made a jus, which turned out a bit oily. The cauliflower flan was topped with sauteed spinach and thin slices of cauliflower. And my two simple garnishes were a brunoise of carrot and green bell pepper and artichoke chips. I found a picture of a dish from a restaurant that just had a line of brunoise veggies on the plate and I knew I had to use it for my atelier. I like the simplicity of it.
Overall this atelier was much more successful on all fronts. I thought the plating was nice and the flavors balanced. I felt really good during and after the session, and that’s what really matters to me most now. As much as I want to excel in school and in the kitchen, I don’t want it to be a source of anxiety. In the future, there will most definitely be times when I will be emotionally down, but I don’t want that to overpower what cooking means to me and how happy it makes me feel. I’m doing this because I love it, and school of all things should be a place to experience just that.
With that in mind I tried to go into this final atelier, Atelier 29, with calm and ease, but how could I?! It’s the last dish I’m going to be making and one that determines whether I graduate or not. I don’t want to think about the possibility of not passing, but I don’t want to forget that 4 hours is a short time and that being late 5 minutes almost guarantees a fail. Anyhow, I’m trying to cool my nerves so let’s just say if so many others before me have done it, so can I!
We were given the ingredient list about two weeks before, which gave us enough time to think about what we wanted to make. The obligatory ingredients are: guinea fowl, foie gras, King praw, marjoram, young spinach leaves, poivrade artichokes, mango, tapioca, brussels sprouts, and celery root. In place of the entrée we have a verrine and instead of 2 servings we need to make 4. The required elements of the main dish are 1 vegetable flan, 1 simple garnish, 1 stuffed vegetable, and a sauce or jus.
It took me a really long time to figure out exactly what I was going to make, especially because this time we also needed to submit a dossier that outlines each dish and all the consisting recipes and directions. My group was lucky enough to be able to submit the dossier a few days after our atelier, but other groups who had their practice after ours had to turn them in on the same day. In any case, because there was a dossier involved and the fact that this was the final exam, I spent more time figuring out all the details.
For my verrine, I’m making a tomato flavored tapioca with a pickled artichoke (pickling again!) and marinated and seared King prawns served with a garlic mousse and artichoke chips. It has a lot of things going on, but I didn’t want to compromise any of the components because I really like all the flavors and textures going on. The chef really liked my verrine so I’m hoping tomorrow (yes tomorrow is the exam!) it’ll turn out just the same.
For my main, I’m serving the guinea fowl in two ways: thighs braised and breasts stuffed with foie gras and spinach. It’s accompanied by a celery root flan with celery root chips, stuffed brussels sprouts, and a slightly tangy mango coulis. I tried to finish within 4 hours, but ended up being 40 minutes late. Yes! Gasp! I know! What am I going to do for the exam?! Although I definitely worked hard, I didn’t work as fast as I could, and our supervising chef didn’t push for us to finish within that time frame either. There were a lot of factors that played against us, for example not all the ingredients were present in class and the mood was just relaxed and laid back. I keep telling myself that the exam will be different and more “professional,” but it is giving me a lot of stress that I didn’t finish on time during the practice. I know it wasn’t the right environment, but it would give me a lot of peace in mind if I had finished within four hours during the last atelier.
I’m really nervous about the exam and can’t get myself to calm down. My only wish (besides finishing on time) is that I just enjoy cooking for the last time at school. One of the chefs once told us that when we need to enter the kitchen with a happy mindset, leaving everything else outside the door. Our personal mindset affects how we cook and the outcome it produces. I really, really believe in that philosophy and hope I can live it tomorrow.