Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Quantifying and Qualifying

It had finally arrived. The three days we all knew were coming. The three days they said we would fly through. The three days to decide it all.

The three days of Assessment Week.

Rationally speaking, we didn't have anything to work ourselves into a blind panic about - assessment required us to produce a three or four course menu from recipes we had all made successfully before and even replicated since we had been taught them. We had four hours to complete and present the dishes and then were assessed on how we tidied and cleaned down the kitchen, and on what we did with our leftover ingredients. We'd get the afternoon to recover and prepare for the next day before we started again in the morning, each day becoming progressively more difficult. The chef tutors had all been keen to point out all the way through the course that they were there to help us ahead of assessment, to answer any questions we had, to enable us to achieve the best results we were capable of. We had been put through a mock assessment a week ahead of the real deal, to help us to iron out any areas of weakness such as speed, seasoning, and prioritising tasks, and that had taught me the valuable lesson of treating my cooking process with a little more mindfulness and care.

Circumstances around my own assessment week were wonderful, but hardly optimal in an academic sense - I spent the weekend before away with friends, and the night before our final assessment day out to dinner with classmates at Rob Dawe's pop-up. But in fact, this all helped me to focus, to plan ahead and to reflect on the skills I had picked up. The weekend before gave me the opportunity to replicate some of the dishes as practise for a crowd who could give me supportive customer-style feedback and boost my confidence in the process. The pop-up reminded me what I'm doing this for - so that I, too, can continue to bring smiles to people's faces with my cooking, to share my skills and to enthuse others about food so that it can bring as much happiness to them as it does to me. And despite my original fears, the last, and hardest, of my assessment days, following my night off, was also my strongest and most enjoyable. Back in February, I would never have thought I could successfully produce minestrone, filleted and panfried fish, bread rolls, a French trimmed rack of lamb and dauphinoise potatoes with jus and a tarte tatin in four hours, looking beautiful and tasting great. And to enjoy myself in the process? Give over.

I struggle to believe all of this was a mere week ago, as it already feels like the days when I cooked and learned (and ate!) all day long are far more distant than that. Over the next few weeks, I will be taking time to go through all of my course notes, to digest the wealth of information I have absorbed and to plan on how to put it to use. I want to make sure my blog readers can benefit from my newfound knowledge too; I am so proud of the work I have put into recording my journey through the course and sharing my experiences with you and I hope you look forward to carrying on learning as much as I do. In the meantime, there are a few key nuggets of wisdom that I took away from the course that I will keep with me and that I hope will help you in your own kitchen endeavours.

Plan Ahead. For each day of our assessment, we had to prepare a Prep List. We didn't get much guidance on how to do this, and I went off and did what worked for me - a detailed breakdown of what tasks I needed to do, in what order. For any menu, be it making a sandwich for lunch through to a dinner party for twelve, there will be jobs that take varying lengths of time, different processes to be used, different operating temperatures, and these need to be planned together in a way that allows them to slot into each other like jigsaw pieces. It's kitchen choreography. This aspect may extend to days, weeks in advance as you take into account seasonality and availability of ingredients, dietary requirements, even unforeseen mishaps. Don't just make things one at a time; the most skilful chefs can dance between dishes, spinning multiple plates at once. I was told that my Prep List was the most organised and methodical they had seen and while I don't plan on replicating that style every time I cook by any means, I have definitely learned the value of thinking dishes through carefully!

Taste it, and taste it again. It takes practise to get seasoning right. I still have more to learn here, and lots of my dishes could have gone from 'great' to 'excellent' if I'd been a bit more brave with the salt. It takes time to develop a palate and the only way to speed up that process is to taste everything. Your food will be transformed when the seasoning hits the mark and it is important to respect salt, not to make it your enemy. Don't use table salt - the flavour is too harsh, and experiment with the different salts out there. You may be a Maldon lover or you may develop a Cornish Sea passion but the only way to know is to try. If you find yourself scared at how big a proper chef pinch of sea salt flakes is, try weighing it and you will be surprised at how little you are adding. If you get it right, you shouldn't need it at the table any more, which is an excellent move for better health.

Eat with your eyes. A beautiful tasting dish needs to be treated with respect, and this means making it look as good as it tastes. Think not only about portion size, but the shape of the items and hence the best corresponding plate shape. Consider the colours and how best to showcase them. Remember that human brains are wired to find odd numbers more attractive. Get rid of any unwanted drips, smears or fingermarks. And make sure the temperature of the plate supports the food as well.

Ask Questions. Learn as much as you can about ingredients - where they are from, how to treat them, and what they pair with. If you make a mistake, find out why, learn from it, and try again. Never, Ever Stop Learning. And practise as much as you can. One of the tutors told us that when he started out, he would come home with a 2.5kg sack of potatoes and sit in front of the TV practising how to carve each one. Every mouthful you make should be treated with dedication and respect, and if you fail partway through a recipe, don't blame the ingredients, but reflect on how you will do better next time. Having a failure does not make you a failure.

Be responsible. For every plate of food, there is a long chain reaching back to where the ingredients came from. Always strive to shorten that chain where you can, and to learn about it so that you can say with confidence that you have respected the way that ingredient was born, nurtured and eventually came to be on your plate. 'Catch it, kill it, eat it' may not be your style but it is still important to have an awareness of what is involved in that process.

As we sat together on our final day, our first day as a team of qualified chefs, happy tums full of the curries we had made together, the Academy Manager told us that this was just the start of our journeys. He told us that not a day goes by when food doesn't enthuse him in some way, when he learns something new about it. "The Perfect Dish," he said, "does not exist. Because you'll never know when you serve it, whether or not it was perfection. You can have tasted it and checked it all the way through but you won't know how it tastes to that person at that time and whether all the elements came together perfectly. And so you continue to strive for perfection every day."

I made a gamble when I started down the food path three years ago. I'm still making gambles now as I work out what to do next, how I will generate an income and the best way to balance my passion and my happiness. But I do know that I am on the right journey and I am proud of what I have achieved so far. My course has shaped me (in more ways than one!); I am grateful to the chef tutors for their time, their energy, their knowledge and their passion and consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from them.

And do you know what, I can cook!

I completed a six-week Professional Culinary Certificate at Ashburton Chefs Academy. This comprised of a CTH Level 2 in Culinary Skills an a CIEH Level 3 Award in Food Safety. You can find out more about the course here.

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