One thing that is hard to work on in culinary school is creativity. We are there to learn classic techniques and recipes and not really how to expand with our own culinary creations. Once we got into Phase Two there was a little room to work with our creativity, but with kind guidelines and restrictions, of course.
Every Friday we participated in Market Basket. Our teams would be given three ingredients, one for each course, and one day to create three dishes. Some of the ingredients included pears, salmon, monkfish, chocolate and mushrooms. The ingredients were usually something that we had worked with during the week so that we were somewhat familiar with it. While we were free to do whatever we wanted, we were highly encouraged to only attempt things that we have done before. The most successful dishes were often the ones that took a new spin on a classic French technique.
Thursday afternoons we were given the ingredients and free reign of the commissary. We had time to brainstorm with our team and order any items that we might need. As soon as it turned 8am on Friday morning we could get to work. We would have four hours to see if the recipes work, attempt plating and get ready for service.
Once the time came for service we would go back into the classroom where our judges were waiting: Chef Francois, Chef Patrice and a guest “celebrity” judge. This was the most nerve-wracking and exciting part. We had some really great judges come in for this exercise including L’Academie Alums and a chef from the White House. The teams were selected to go in random order. The first and second courses were served first and then we took a break before dessert. While each judge tasted the dishes we would wait patiently (and usually with sweaty palms and fast beating heart) for the judges reactions. Sometimes they were good…sometimes they were not so good. The most memorable reactions had to have been when food was spit out, food couldn’t even get on to the fork and food couldn’t be eaten because it was too hot. The last one actually was a very good thing.
This was a really great exercise to prepare us for the honesty that is the kitchen. It also let someone else (professionals) taste our food and get a sense of where our seasoning levels were at. In school, seasoning is everything. We’re taught to heavily season our food. This was something I’m still not adjusted to, but have gotten much better at. It’s amazing to see one dish and have three different reactions: perfectly seasoned, not enough and too much.
Here are some pictures from the first Market Basket using our secret ingredients chocolate…
There was never really a “winner” but the judges were invited to tell us their favorite dishes. I kind of like hearing brutal honesty, even if it sucks sometimes, so this helped me develop a thicker skin when it comes to someone criticizing my food. I remember in Phase One thinking that I was going to be a nervous wreck over Market Baskets, but at the end, I think it’s one of the things I am going to miss the most from Phase Two.