Thursday's classroom cooking exercise was as close to reality as we have gotten in 15 weeks at the California Culinary Academy. Trial by fire, literally.
Chef Instructor Dan Fluharty pushes hard, yet consistently encourages us by saying, "You can do this," whenever we face a difficult cooking assignment. On Thursday, he acknowledged as we raggedly wrapped up the day's three-course, 30-ingredient assignment that it was more difficult than most.
We had two hours to do it all: mise en place -- setting up our stations with the ingredients and equipment needed -- preparing the ingredients, cooking, plating and presenting. Chef set up a schedule for service similar to what it would be in a restaurant.
The first course, a mixed-green salad topped with shredded duck confit and a mustard vinaigrette, was due at 4 o'clock.
The second course, a white-bean soup with Spanish chorizo and topped with fried julienne of leek, was due at 4:15 p.m.
The main course was a grilled New York steak, bearnaise sauce, roasted red potatoes, artichoke and cauliflower gratin in a mornay sauce and sun-dried tomato garnish. It was due at 4:30 p.m.
Everyone hit the mark on the first two courses. The main course was another matter, a heavy lift of a total of 21 ingredients and two complex sauces. Add in cooking the steak on a crowded grill top where it seemed all 10 of us gathered at once. Most plates were late to Chef, including mine, which I delivered at 4:45 p.m.
That wouldn't be acceptable in a restaurant. But then, as Chef pointed out when I fretted and shook my head: "You're still learning. Mistakes are a part of it. This was a difficult day."
Among other successes, my sauces were done well. My bearnaise even held up until I got home, and we enjoyed it for dinner with good portions left from the New York steak.
Sheer exhaustion overwhelmed me at day's end, yet there was a glimmer of accomplishment behind the veil of grill smoke.