At the end of everyone’s second semester at the CIA—right before you go out on your externship—you are required to take a cooking practical. You walk into a special kitchen constructed for just this purpose and draw one of six menus out of a metaphorical hat. You know exactly what dishes make up each menu, but you don’t know anything else. You’ll need to make a soup, a protein, two vegetables, and a starch. You’ve got 2.5 hours to make it happen. You’re watched and graded at every step of the way. The food is tasted, evaluated, and given a mark. You need to score above a 65. Obviously, you can’t fail. It happens, though, even to perfectly good cooks. If you blow it once, you pay $50 and take it again. If you blow it a second time, you pony up $50 more and take it again. If you fail it three times, you’re screwed. A third failure means an automatic 15 week suspension. But if you fail the test three times, that’s probably the least of your problems. This is basic stuff. Can you roast a chicken? Can you deep poach a piece of salmon? Can you make a good beef stew? Each menu component is something you’ve done a few times before in the Skills II and III classes, and you’ve presumably had some success with them. This is why I’ve never thought ill of people who fail it the first time around, or who scrape by with an insanely low score. Sometimes you simply have a bad day, and sometimes that bad day is when you’re taking your practical.
So let me tell you about my bad day.
My test was to be taken during the second week of my garde manger class—the class wherein one learned to make sausages, cure salmon, play around with fois gras, get a basic rundown on how foods get hot- and cold-smoked, and make a lot of appetizer-type items. In order to stay on schedule in class, I was getting there a little after 6:30 each morning, which meant leaving my house at 5:30, which, in turn, meant getting up at 4 so I could amp myself through the clouds on caffeine, then shower, shave, and eat something. Because I typically go to bed around 1:00 AM, my schedule was upended; I was trying to get to sleep by 8, and I felt like I had a perpetual case of jet lag. I was delirious all the time. To add to the fun, I had to work with sharp knives.
And on the appointed day, in addition to an altered consciousness, I also had to take my practical, starting at two in the afternoon.
At 2:00, I arrived at the Practical Kitchen, along with the five others who’d be taking the test that day. I knew three of them from class. The kitchen was pretty small: a few equipment racks, a pair of refrigerators, shelves of ingredients and sanitation supplies, and six workspaces with six burners each and a small, reach-in fridge (aka, a low-boy) below them. There were no sinks at any of the stations. Each work area was segmented from the others with a blue-tiled barricade.
I was prepared for every and all contingencies: I had all the possible recipes written out, a timeline for each of the possible menus, “shopping lists” with all the possible ingredients. My stack of index cards was about two inches thick.
I was very much hoping I would not have to make hollandaise, one of my least favorite things to do.
And if I could avoid making salmon—one of my most hated foods—I’d feel okay about it.
The start times were staggered by 15, 20 minutes or so. If you’re the last to go, you would have been waiting for nearly two hours before being allowed to start cooking.
We were given a tour for 30 minutes, and then loosed to go exploring, just to see where everything was. The instructor, a gentle-seeming Spanish man with soft-voice and an occasionally impenetrable accent, called the first student over. It wasn’t me. But as I walked by I caught a glimpse of his clipboard and noticed my name was last. I felt unsteady on my feet and suspected this would be a long, long afternoon. I wasn’t able to tell what the menu would be, but as the time passed and the others began cooking—one person got the roast chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and consommé, another (mercifully) got the salmon and hollandaise, also with a consommé—the possibilities got narrower.
An hour passed. I spent that time walking through and observing at a distance, from time to time bumping into the instructor, who was doing the same thing. He’d stop, watch from over someone’s shoulder, staring at a pile of scraps or dirty utensils or pans. He’d watch how they stirred, how well they seared a piece of meat, and then make a mark on a paper on that clipboard.
The next-to-last person was called, a young woman I’d never seen before but whom others seemed to know. She did not appear to be a favorite of any of them. They muttered about her being incompetent and unpleasant. Apparently, this was her second time taking the test. She was assigned a shallow-poached filet of fish. This meant that I knew exactly what my menu would be: beef stew, mashed potatoes, sautéed green beans, blanched root vegetables, and a beef consommé. I had never had much trouble with consommé—it always just seemed to work for me. But I’d witnessed others make a mess with it. You mixed egg whites, ground meat, onions, tomatoes, etc. into a slush, drop it into a pot of stock, bring it to a simmer and let it go. As the stock bubbled, the raft—as the now-solidified slush was called—pulled all the flotsam, particles, and detritus from the liquid, bobbed and jumped greyly on top, leaving you with a perfectly clear soup.
“Hey, Jonathan,” I heard. “Come here a minute, please.” The instructor told me he was making a switch. “Forget the consommé,” he said. “Do a cream of cauliflower soup instead.”
Then he started asking me questions, each one worth a few points: “What are the five mother sauces?”
“Veloute, béchamel, tomato, Espagnol, and hollandaise,” I said.
“Good. And can you tell me what an emulsion is?”
I was anxious to get cooking, and found my mind suddenly slippery. “Uhhh...when oil and a liquid are forced to co-exist.”
“What does that mean, ‘co-exist?’”
Words failed me. “When the oil molecules are forced to bond with the other molecules...” I was interlocking my fingers to illustrate this.
“But what holds them together?”
God? Destiny? “Uhhhh...another medium? Something in which the two incompatible molecules are suspended?”
“Maybe you mean a ‘stabilizer’?”
“No maybe about it,” I said with confidence. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
“And how is an emulsion formed?”
“You...you...” I put my hands to work for demonstration purposes. “You beat the hell out of it.” I whipped my hands around. I was seriously tired.
He looked like he was pondering the nuances of the word “hell.” “Okay,” he said after a moment.
Thus it went for a while. He gave me a 100 on this part of the test. And I was given the go-ahead to start cooking.
I immediately preheated the oven to 375.
There were a few ingredients stowed in the low-boy: some cubed beef, green beans, a turnip. That was about it. I looked at my menu cards—stew, vegetables, potatoes, comsomme— and then rocketed over to the storage fridge and commenced scavenging: small carrots for the root vegetables, a rutabaga, a whole lot of butter, red wine, and ingredients for the consommé: ground chicken (there was no ground beef), eggs, a few plum tomatoes, etc. I grabbed potatoes to mash. There would be other things I’d need, but I could get them later on.
About ten minutes had passed.
Beef stew and soup both take a while. The soup could just sit on a back burner, so I figured I’d start it first. I started making the raft for the consommé: a rough chop of the onions, cutting up the tomatoes, separating the eggs. I beat the eggs, and folded the other ingredients in. I went back to the fridge to get some stock. And it occurred to me that I had just made my first error.
“Forget the consommé,” the instructor had said. “Do a cream of cauliflower soup instead.”
Fifteen minutes had passed. Fifteen minutes had just been squandered. Nothing I’d prepped for the consommé could be salvaged for anything else. I toyed with the idea of just going ahead and making a consommé, but decided this could backfire. It hurt, but I tossed the ingredients. This was, I’d realize later, the first of two big mistakes I’d make that day. The lost 15—now 17—minutes would really cost me.
Five students had gone before me. The pots and pans at the dish sink had piled into a small Everest. I would need a few of them, because there weren’t that many left on the shelf. One of the first people to go had finished and was beginning work on the pile. I told him which ones I needed and he said he’d take care of me.
I then made my second big mistake, the one that would truly come back to bite me on the ass. I didn’t get that at the time, though.
The base of a cream soup—broccoli, cauliflower, mushroom, whatever—is veloute, a sauce made of a roux and a stock. I had noticed that there was no Espagnol sauce in the storage fridge. Espagnol sauce is a crucial component of the CIA’s beef stew recipe. It is something of a pain in the ass to make if you’re in a hurry. I was starting to be in a hurry. You need mirepoix, tomato paste, a brown roux, and stock. I’d deal with it in a minute, after I got the veloute going.
I looked at the clock and, man, a lot of time had passed. I started making a roux, enough for the veloute, working on a higher heat than I really should have. But I got it done, and added the stock bit by bit. I felt I was regaining that time. I let it simmer.
I cranked the heat under a large sauteuse, poured in the oil, and started browning the beef. As it browned, I worked on mirepoix for the Espagnol, and skimmed the veloute. Once the meat was done, I deglazed with the red wine, poured in the stock, added a bay leaf, brought it to a boil, and put it in the oven.. I’d gotten the time back. One hour, 40 minutes to go—more than enough—way more—to finish everything else.
I cooked the mirepoix until it caramelized. I spooned in the tomato paste and let it turn a nice, rusty red. When that was done, I added the stock, pushed it to the back burner, and let it simmer. I started boiling water for the cauliflower, cut it up, blanched it, shocked it, and set it aside. I did the same with the green beans in another pot. I fabricated the vegetables. I was in great shape again. For a few minutes I just stood and watched things steam and bubble, entranced by all the alchemy I’d just worked. I went to skim the Espagnol and noticed there wasn’t much flour rising to the top. I skimmed the veloute. I got the blender and made the cream soup. It was really good. One hour and ten minutes to go. I thought it was strange that there was still nothing to skim on the Espagnol, but not strange enough to keep me from pouring it in with the already-simmering stew. I’d skim it later. An hour to go. I’d mash the potatoes last minute. I had the beans and the root vegetables set for a quick stay over the heat with some butter, salt, and pepper.
The dish sink was still mounded, and there was no place to take my dirty dishes. I tried to neaten the dirty pans at my own station as best I could. I wiped down what I could around the stove. Leaving the mess was mistake number three.
With 40 minutes to go, I checked on my stew. I pulled it out and pulled the top from the pot. It looked watery. I tasted it. It tasted thin and almost acidic. Something had gone amiss.
It hit me just then: had never gotten around to making the roux for the Espagnol. I’d just forgotten. This was the root—the bedrock—of the problem. There was a significant paucity of flavor and texture to the stew. The 40 minutes suddenly seemed very short.
I could make a roux, I thought, and get at least a 20 minute simmer, maybe a few minutes more. I turned the heat to high under a pan, added some oil, and went off to get more flour. The flour went into the pan, and I whisked it into the oil. I should have done it in increments. I also should have paid more attention and not turned my back to deal with the potatoes because it took just a few moments for the roux to burn beyond salvaging. As I tossed it out, I realized, too, that the instructor had been watching me for the past 90 minutes. I had no idea what he’d seen.
I looked over at him and he was looking back at me. I might have just imagined it, but I think I saw him—very slightly—shake his head in a sort of rebuke. Something unpleasant bloomed in my stomach.
I needed the quickest possible fix here. When the instructor was busy evaluating one of the students who’d just finished, I dashed to the fridge and the dry storage. I took a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a bottle of soy sauce, a rind of parmesan, and some corn starch. I put a good shot of balsamic into the stew, followed by a few dashes of soy sauce, and then the rind. Soy and parmesan add depth of flavor—what the Japanese have dubbed umami—and I thought I’d get some sweetness from the balsamic. I left it on the stove top and brought it to almost a boil. The meat was not going to be that tender, but...
I got the potatoes in the boiling water. I was really pushing it, time-wise.
I made a slurry of corn starch and water, and, with fifteen minutes to go, added it to the stew. It thickened immediately. It still tasted off. I dumped in an immense spoonful of butter. It tasted passable.
Ten minutes to go. I speared a fork into one of the potato quarters and it felt done. I dumped them into a colander, put them into a food mill and started turning. That solitary potato was the only one of its brethren that had fully cooked. I scraped off the useable, parts of the other potatoes and found I had about a serving’s worth. I turned the mill again, with great vigor, and squeezed another quarter-portion out.
I mixed in the hot cream and the softened butter. I seasoned the potatoes and realized I simply did not have enough for the two servings I was supposed to present for evaluation. I eyed the cream of cauliflower soup, pondered my situation, and dumped a large ladleful of the soup into my potatoes. I mixed quickly, tasted—actually, they were fairly tasty—and put them into a pastry bag. I piped them onto the plate in one of the silly curlicue designs the CIA seems to like.
It was just about time to be evaluated...