Today's the last culinary diary. Last night's class was the de facto final. It was the practical exam that, unlike our written exams, was based on our individual skills in the kitchen. Top Chef without the cameras -- or drama.
The menu wasn't difficult: arroz con pollo with a Waldorf salad and roasted zucchini. The toughest part was making everything within the hour time frame.
Arroz con pollo is a Spanish chicken dish that's virtually error-proof and contains a full meal's worth of ingredients with rice, vegetables and the chicken. You can look elsewhere online for a recipe (here's a good one), but basically it's just chicken you brown in a pan and then put in a braising dish. Throw a little rice into the same pan and add chicken stock, diced tomatoes and peppers and get that mixture bubbling. Once it's bubbling, dump it over the chicken in the braising pan, wrap foil tightly over the top to seal in the moisture, and stick it in the oven for 20 minutes or as long as it takes the rice to absorb all the stock and tomato juice. None of those steps are technically difficult.
It does take some prep work, though. There's the dicing of the peppers, onion and garlic; the browning of the chicken; the gathering of the seasonings, etc. With only an hour to plate everything, I had to work efficiently but fast.
Even working quick, it still took me 25 minutes before I finally wrapped the foil over the top of the braising pan and put the arroz con pollo
in the oven. That didn't leave me much leeway for plating, so I wanted to
have my Waldorf salad made by the time the
arroz con pollo was done.
As any Fawlty Towers fan will tell you, Waldorf salad is "Celery! Apples!
Walnuts! Grapes! In a mayonnaise sauce!" Really it's just a fruit salad
made slightly difficult by the mayonnaise sauce, which is actually known
as Chantilly dressing and involves folding whipping cream into the
Each of us was required to
make our own mayonnaise. Like the arroz con pollo, it's not a difficult thing
to do, but it does take some time to whip the egg yolk and get the consistency of yolk to acids just right. (For the acid, I prefer lemon juice instead of vinegar.)
The hardest thing about a good Chantilly
dressing is the temperature. Mayonnaise should always be made with eggs
close to room temperature and with oil close to room temperature. If
either is to cold, the mayo cannot emulsify. Whipping cream, on the other hand, should be
made in a bowl as cold as possible with cream that's as cold as
possible; otherwise, it takes Herculean strength to whip it fast
enough to solidify.
Having planned ahead (I prepared for this exam with a test
cooking run), I had a metal bowl in the freezer chilling by the
time I finished making my mayo. I took the whipping cream into the
walk-in freezer and whipped it into nice heavy folds there in
under two minutes. With both parts of the dressing done, I
quickly cut up an apple and a little celery and dropped them into the
mayo and then folded in the cream. I whipped it all together, added
some walnuts (no grapes in this recipe) and plated it with a lettuce
cup. It had been almost exactly 20 minutes since I'd put the arroz
con pollo in the oven, and I was sailing.
"Shit!" I suddenly thought. I had forgotten the zucchini. I
let my arroz con pollo cook a little longer (there are no worries in
really overcooking the chicken because it's braised in liquid and
therefore moist at any doneness) and put a pan on the oven. I cut a few
slices of zucchini and looked at the clock. I was down to five
minutes. I put the zucchini on the pan and removed the arroz con pollo
from the oven. On the way back to my station, I grabbed a
warmed plate from the steamer and flipped my zucchini.
Three minutes left to plate.
While I had practiced making the dish, I hadn't practiced
the plating. It took me a minute to
decide how to arrange everything. I decided to layer the rice
and vegetables into a small oval on the center and then
put my chicken on top. This left a lot of room on the sides of the
plate; grabbing my zucchini off the stove, I layered the zucchini
on those sides. Finally, I added the Waldorf salad and looked at my
It looked bland.
The chicken needed a garnish. Having no time to grab
anything else, I just picked up a piece of zucchini and flayed it on
top of the chicken.
All done and only a couple of minutes late. I called my teacher over for the important tasting.
This was the big test, the culmination of 14 weeks of practice. He poked his fork at the rice and wrote a couple of notes. Poked his fork at the chicken and wrote some more notes. Finally he actually tasted small bites of the rice, chicken and Waldorf salad. He jotted down some final notes and left. It was very anti-climactic. No "wow!" or "this sucks!" Just some nods and murmurs.
I started to clean up and help with the dishes. My station was a mess. As I was cleaning up, my teacher walked back by and called me over. He pointed to his clipboard, and there was my score: 93 out of a 100. I scored perfectly on taste, but was marked down on time and mis en place.
I was happy, but as I saw the notes, all I could think about was week one and that I still have trouble with damn mis en place. Some things never change. -- Owen Morris