Sunday, October 26, 2008

First and Last

We’d gotten our menu assignment: beef medallions—sauteed—to be served with a sauce chausseur, along with deep-fried onion rings, potato gratin, and broccolini. The hitch was—as it had been for the last two weeks—that the completed meal had to be presented for evaluation at a specific minute. You could not be early. You could not be late. You had your minute, and that was it. Mine was 5:41.

There were things that could be done in advance. At 4:45, I heated up a gallon of water, salted it heavily when it came to a boil, blanched the broccolini, and shocked it in ice water. I rolled it between paper towels, and set it off to the side. Later, a few moments before presentation, I’d heat it up with a little butter and a splash of water, season it, and put it on the plate.

The Skills Chef had remarked several times during the previous three weeks, “If you take a shortcut now, you’ll be taking them for your whole career.”

For each minute you were off, you lost five points. I had not been off for the two weeks we’d had our appointed times. I’d watched others come up two minutes, three minutes, even 15 minutes late. My station was right near the Skills Chef’s desk, and I got to listen to them being reamed out. After they’d been evaluated, they’d take their plate and walk away. I’d watch the chef shake his head and begin scrawling on the grade sheet with his pen.

By 5:00, my gratin had been in the oven for a while. We’d run short of the right type of pan to use, so the one I was forced to employ was too small. The gratin kept bubbling up and over the sides. I could hear the liquid sizzling when it hit the bottom of the oven, and smell the burning as it cooked away.

I had been working with the same partner for three weeks, and I liked him quite a bit. We looked out for each other: turned things down when the burner was too high, got supplies, equipment and ingredients for each other, and stayed out of each other’s way when our minute came to pass. This day, he was set to go about 25 minutes before me.

I tied butcher’s string around my medallions to give them some shape. I cut up the onions for the onion rings. I chopped some parsley last minute for my partner’s garnish. I wiped my station down. It was about 5:10.

My partner and I were sharing the same sauce chasseur. I’d made it for the two of us. The sauce is usually used for chicken, but tonight it would be plated with the beef. You sauté some mushrooms until they begin to caramelize, throw in some shallots, and wait for them to turn translucent. You take some cognac and white wine, deglaze the pan so all the brown bits come up, and let them reduce by half. You add demi-glace. Cook it for a little bit, strain, and wait until you’re just ready to use it. If you’ve read the recipe instructions correctly, you’d know that some seeded, diced tomatoes get added and briefly simmered, and the whole thing is finished by adding a little butter and stirring until it dissolves.

At 5:25, the oil for the onion rings was way too hot. I turned it down, floured them, then put them into the batter. I’d let them sit for a few until it was time to fry them. I’d taken the gratin out of the oven, where it had been drooling over the edges of the pan, about 15 minutes earlier. I fired up a pan to sauté the medallions, which I’d let rest after they were done for about 7 or 8 minutes.

I tasted the sauce. It was a little sharp, but I’d add the butter right before serving, so that sharpness would be blunted. I dribbled a little clarified butter into a sauté pan, waited a moment and threw the medallions on. I’d had the heat way too high. I pulled the pan off the heat and told myself to put them back on in a moment. Time was beginning to erode much more quickly than I’d anticipated. It was almost 5:30. The onions needed to be fried. I’d forgotten about the broccolini. I fired up another pan to heat it. The kitchen clock was right in my line of sight, and the seconds were liquid and slippery. After a minute or two, the onions went in the oil. When I turned the heat down, I’d accidentally turned it off. They bobbed for a moment with a few timid bubbles popping away at the rings’ edges. I cranked the heat up and put the medallions back on the burner. A skin was forming on the sauce. I was also missing something, and I couldn’t remember what. It was 5:35.



Lunch Buckets said...

oh come on! That's just mean.

Linn Elliott said...

I'm on the edge of my seat...and drooling.

JaimeK said...

Oy! You are killing me...