Sunday, 28 June 2009

Graduation and final thoughts

Having arrived back into Paris around midnight on Wednesday night, the last thing I fancied doing was going into school at the crack of dawn on Thursday morning......I managed reluctantly and was around an hour late. The reason for coming into school was to prepare food for our graduation on Friday afternoon. Bizarrely enough, our equivalent Anglo cuisine class were not doing any cooking for graduation at all so it was left to our Anglopat class to provide the food. We each had to prepare 1 savoury and 1 sweet dish, preferably in finger food form from our country. I plumped for making some HK favourites, barbecued pork puffs (aka. cha siu so) and egg custard tarts (aka. dan tat). The plan was to get all mise-en-place on Thursday so we would be ready on Friday to just cook the stuff. As expected, I hadn't realised that prep work would take longer than I thought - it didn't help that I had to rush off to Tang Gourmet at lunchtime to pick up some cha siu also (I had tried asking chef to get me some but got a bemused look and the question, "what is porc laqué?".

Friday was a bit of a nightmare, well, maybe not for me as I managed to get everything baked and ready before 2pm (chef's deadline had been 1pm) - there were still people cooking in the kitchen when the graduation ceremony started??!! The ceremony also started late so it was a bit crazy playing chef, commis, host, present buyer, waitress, dishwasher in the space of a couple of hours! I think everyone enjoyed the food - I was very happy with the way the cha siu so came out (JD reckoned that they looked better than any you would find in a dim sum restaurant!) - the dan tat tasted good but were not so successful cos I didn't have the right moulds to make them so a bit gutted about them. The graduation ceremony was quite brief and very French in that "random lost in translation" way? All the chefs were invited to say something about the classes, chef touched on the 10 different nationalities in the class (he never tires of this!) which sometimes meant some heated arguments! He was also very gracious in saying that we were the first class to push him to go further with the curriculum which is nice to know. Afterwards, we were all presented with our certificates, the director of the school seemed quite impressed when he was told where I would be going to do my stage! 

All the madness meant that I completely forgot to take pictures of the food I made (bummer!) so you will just have to take my word for it! Our pastillage paintings were also out on display, we were told by chef to take them if we wanted them after the ceremony - I forgot mine and they have now been thrown away which is a little sad :(  

So any final thoughts? It has been a really fun last 5 months and one of the best decisions I've made in life to come and do the course at Ferrandi. Its not been easy at times but even during these times, it was still heaps better than what I left behind in the banking industry. I have been very lucky to have trained under chefs who are experts in their field and have been more than generous with their time and knowledge, this is something that will always stay with me and will always bring back very happy memories. I've also had the opportunity to make some great friends and hopefully, we will stay in touch when we all go back to our respective countries - without these friendships, life in Paris over the last 5 months would certainly have been a lot duller (and also Pho Mui and Lao Lane Xang would have made a lot less money without our regular patronage!!). Now its back to the real world again to start my 3-month stage - a bit daunting as I am heading off to a top Parisian patisserie, fingers crossed that everything will go OK :)    

Pays Basque

Our last week at school kicked off with a school jolly for a few days in the Pays Basque (Basque country) with the class. We set off for your journey down south on Sunday evening (a bit of a bummer as we missed most of the Fête de la Musique) and experienced the "joy" of sleeper trains to Biarritz. Its not something that I will be rushing to do again as I don't think I got a wink's sleep on Sunday night?! We arrived at our destination at the crack of dawn and all bundled into our rental mini-van for a spot of brekkie in town, weirdly enough, a fry-up in the South of France?

Then it was off to the gîte (holiday home) where we were staying which was situated in Cambo les Bains up a hill and only accessible by a fairly treacherous windy road that brought back memories of our holliers in Corsica last year, not for the fainthearted, especially with chef driving like a maniac :) We dropped off our luggage and freshened up and then it was off to visit a coastal town called St Jean de Luz - the initial plan had been to go for a dip in the sea there but in the end, we had a goo around the town and stopped off for some lunch - nice enough but as we were dining al fresco, a few of our party managed to get fried royally in the sun (including chef!). The afternoon was then taken up with a quick boat trip to Spain (or Southern Basque Country in PC terms) to Hondarribia - a very picturesque little town and ended up with a trip to the beach at Hendaye.

Day 2 included a trip to the village of Espelette (home of the famed piment d'espelette), wine tasting (sorry to say it but Basque wines aren't really up to much), visit to a trout farm (very interesting and inspiring) and a quick trek up the hills where pigs graze (very beautiful but lots of pig poo).

Most of the highlights of the trip for me came on the final day and included going blueberry picking at the farm we were staying, as well as our visit to Arnaga on the final day - a lovely house with fabulous gardens which was once owned by Edmond Rostand, best known as the author of Cyrano de Bergerac.

The trip was a lovely break from school - a big thank you to both our chefs for organising it and taking us around all the places we visited. I think we will all be missing our "jumping" pics! :) 

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Judgement Day part deux

Just one more week left at school but in reality, this week just past was our last full week in the lab. There was lots going on, revision sessions, making some regional pastries, our last wine class, last FLE class but the most significant event was our pastry test (or "contrôle des connaissance"). 2 intensive half day sessions making certain pastries from our repertoire designed to test as many techniques as possible - I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous beforehand. Luckily, a few of us had met up last weekend to compare notes which was helpful and despite not having an oven, I tried practicing other techniques at home such as lining a tart shell, piping with Nutella and scoring for pithiviers. The 2 days were very hectic but we managed to get almost everything done - we were also told at the end of day 2 that chef normally takes 3 days for the tests but wanted to push us further as we were a good class so had squashed everything into 2 days. I don't mind being pushed but doing it to us on test day was maybe not exactly what I had in mind. So, what was on the test?
  1. Pithiviers
  2. Chaussons aux pommes
  3. Tarte aux pommes
  4. Flan parisien
  5. Moka
  6. Eclairs / Religieuses
  7. Bavarois entremet
  8. Chocolates (dipped, egg,  cigarettes)
  9. Creme anglaise
  10. Almond flowers
Chef had given us initial marks at the end of Day 1 and one of his colleagues was also invited to mark our work. Yes, I managed to take a sneaky peek at what my scores were but I think what is more important for me (and also after hearing that chef had already decided what our marks were before the end of the test) is how did I feel I did since ultimately, I will have to be my own critic in the future so here goes:
  • Pithiviers: Looked pretty regular compared to last time (not regular and a section had shrunk) and better scored. However, a little almond paste leaked out so will have to be careful not to score so hard next time. Also, need to smooth my almond paste "hump" to make it picture perfect.  
  • Chaussons aux pommes: Right size in general but not all regular enough. Also need more practice with rolling out of puff pastry in order for better "puffiness".
  • Tarte aux pommes: Pretty good but if I were nitpicking, my apple slices could've been sliced more thinly. The pinching was almost perfect but there was a little section where I did not have enough dough and needed to "stick" some extra for crimping!
  • Flan parisien: only made the pastry shell and same issue as with tarte aux pommes.
  • Moka: construction of the basic cake was a disaster (compounded by feeling the need to rush at the end of the day). Cut the cardboard base too small which gave me problems when scraping butter cream on the sides. Cornet piping was hindered since my cornet was falling apart as I was piping (folded it the wrong way and only found out when I was almost done!). Shell piping was pretty regular.
  • Eclairs/religieuses: Eclairs turned out better than last time, mostly straight. They tasted really good too. Religieuses were too knobbly and need to take more care when dipping in fondant. All choux were filled correctly (fortunately) and made the best pastry cream to date which was a confidence boost :) Butter cream needed to be softer when piping for religieuses.
  • Bavarois entremet: OK bar not sticking raspberries down enough so they appeared on the surface of the entremet.
  • Chocolates: dipped were an improvement from last time as there were less "feet". To me, my ganache had just the right flavour. Egg not as shiny and thick as I would've liked. Cigarettes were acceptable. Think chocolate may have not been crystallised properly? On the plus side, worked quickly and efficiently here.
  • Creme anglaise: think the consistency was correct. Concentration faltered when it came to "moulding" it like ice cream - did not believe that I could produce another perfectly moulded ice cream after last time, I was proved right.
  • Almond flowers: not bad but petals a little too dry and perhaps too close together. Have made better but not a bad effort. Made 5 in the time others made 3.
So my conclusion is that I did OK but not as well as I would've liked in the test. I also think I need to stay calmer as the nerves were jangling a little during the course of the 2 days.  
Have I learnt anything over the last 5 months? A lot. 
Is there any room for improvement? Always.
Do I know what I need to do to improve on my mistakes? Yes. 

Sunday, 14 June 2009

The beginning of the end

Its a little scary to think that we only have 3 weeks left of school, the last 5 months have passed by at warp-like speed.

We had our last traiteur class on Monday, class attendance inched up a little compared to last time to a whopping 50%! Not that I'm complaining having a smaller class but I do feel a little sorry for chef Alain - like all the other chefs we have had teach us at ESCF, he is also an expert in his field and is certain to add to our culinary knowledge, even for those people who have had experience in the kitchen.....oh wellos, tant pis! We spent the morning making salmon coulibiac and pizza. Salmon coulibiac is a dish involving a large amount of mise-en-place which is then used to build a tidy package consisting of salmon fillet layered with spinach, mushroom duxelle, pilaff rice, mashed egg and parsley-flavoured crepes. All of this is then enveloped with brioche dough before being put into the oven to bake until ready. It was really funny seeing numerous other chefs pop in and out of our lab to see when the coulibiac was going to be ready, it felt like that they all have a gift of sniffing out where the good food was being made, probably developed from years of practice, methinks :) The coulibiac weighed almost the same as a newborn baby and we could barely shift our bundles onto a baking sheet - the funniest was seeing one of our classmates with his coulibiac - he used up all his ingredients so it looked like a mini monster!! The final dish was actually very tasty and lighter than imagined - I was actually amazed at how tasty you can make basmati rice with just some onion and a single bay leave!!

The pizza was fairly straightforward to make - essentially a simple dough topped with tomatoes, onions and cheese. Taste-wise, it didn't reach the heights of its Italian roots but it was still pretty nice for a snack. 

The bulk of this week was then centred on preparing for and doing our last restaurant service. As before, it wasn't as hectic as we did not have to prepare any mignardises and mise-en-place so a lot of floating around. I didn't manage to help with preparations on Tuesday as I had to finish my pastillage painting, which as usual, took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I also made the mistake of showing chef when I was done and he told me to go and finish it.......TWICE!! By the 3rd time, I wised up and decided to just leave the plaque on the rack deciding myself that it was finished! In fairness, chef's suggestions for tidying up some things were good and did make the painting look better :)

Like last time, we made 3 desserts for restaurant service; Crêpe soufflé with exotic fruit salad, croustillant de crème à l'anis (crème brûlée parcels wrapped in filo and served with red fruit compote) and rhubarb & apple compote served with coriander tuile and fromage blanc ice cream. Each dessert had a component which was "à la minute" (lit. cooked to order) which made things a little more complicated. Luckily, I was working on the croustillant with a classmate who's had ample experience in the kitchen so our desserts went out pretty much like clockwork. I think the crêpe soufflés were probably the hardest to do and serve on time but we didn't do too badly once a few more people pitched in to help that post. A good service overall and we also said our final goodbyes to our art teacher, Monsieur Niau who had come for dinner with his family, je vous remercie de m'enseigner comment oser :)

I also got the chance to my cigarettes petits fours for Thursday's lunch service - I was feeling a little apprehensive right after I had volunteered to make them since all I could remember from the last time was chef shouting at my classmate about hurrying up! In the end, she helped me out and it wasn't as frantic as I had imagined.....need to grow some Teflon fingers for it tho! :)

We finished off the week with ice sculptures which I was a little worried about since my styrofoam practice version wasn't even 30% finished! Chef then said that we could actually make whatever we wanted so I decided to chicken out and go for a simpler shape.....a shamrock! Sculpting out ice turned out to be much easier than styrofoam but we soon realised that we were fighting against time as our blocks started melting and disappearing before our very eyes!! After some initial chipping away, chef decided to accelerate the shaping of my piece by attacking it with a chain-saw (or saw-chain as he likes to call it!). Later, I decided that I needed more sawing so he just told me to take it myself - kinda scary at first holding a chainsaw but it turned out to be a lot of fun after a few gos! Special mention had to go to our goofy protection -binliner dresses, we looked like something out of Star Wars....only the light sabres were missing.....szung! szung! :)  

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

ESCF - 4 months on

  • Time really does fly when you're having fun.
  • Even though its nice to get good marks at school, the most important thing at the end of the day is what you can produce yourself once you leave. Only you can be a judge of what you do, bearing in mind that you also have customers to satisfy. Being better than "X" doesn't really come into the equation (wise words from Ulla).
  • I need to be more gracious when accepting compliments rather than completely ignore them, hard to break a habit of a lifetime! :)
  • There's no greater feeling than knowing that you will always have loved ones, family and friends supporting you. Without this, I think it would've been a lot more difficult for me to complete this course. Go raibh míle maith agat, 多謝, makasih,  감사합니다, merci buckets, thank you.......
  • Chef is a lot more perceptive than I give him credit for ;)
  • I really hope I don't screw up my stage.
  • I really need to muster up some confidence for stage, pastry test, etc..... 
  • Please let me reproduce a near perfect ice cream mould for the test next week ;)
  • Did I make the right decision to quit the rat race? YES!

Monday, 8 June 2009

The perfect scoop (homage to David Lebovitz)

Following our boulangerie test, there was no time for a breather as we were straight into the lab to make ice creams and sorbets for the rest of the week. 

Surprisingly, they were a lot easier to make than I had imagined - the trick is getting the balance right between sugar, fat, water, etc and its different depending on what fruit (be it fresh or pureed) you decide to use. Chef had already gone through the formal calculations with us last week so now it was up to us to put it all into practice in the lab.  

We began with making a lot of mise en place during the beginning of the week, including more dreaded nougatine work (luckily, this time my fingers were unharmed) - making a bowl to fill scoops of sorbet and ice cream, as well as a lid which we then had to decorate with royal icing. Chef had given us a piping demo beforehand where we had all scoffed at his "antiquated" patterns! He said that we could choose to pipe whatever we wanted but to make something classy and not shit. When left to our own devices, we realised just how hard it was to replicate his design so I cheated and modified my piping to suit my weaknesses - it wasn't so bad and I think I may have even heard chef say that he liked what I had done, woohoo! Props to chef tho for the impressive nougatine corbeille ("basket") he made with all our crappy bits of leftover nougatine! Then it was onto making various biscuit bases and sauces for some of the ice cream cakes we were to build.

Thursday was left to make all the different sorbets (we pretty much had 10+ flavours on the go!) and a few ice creams - the trick is to make all the mixtures and then fridge overnight before then putting into the churner. Think chef had a bit of a heart attack as almost none of the sorbets were registering the estimated readings on the refractometer. After much fumbling and scavenging later for other refractometers, we realised that the one that chef had used was completely banjaxed (so much for "investment for life", ha!!) and another refractometer finally gave us the readings that we wanted.

Friday was all about churning, freezing and building/finishing cakes. A little hectic but the final results were impressive: 
  •  Ananas givré royal: hollowed out pineapple refilled with a combo of pineapple and raspberry sorbet.
  • Bourgogne: ice cream cake with layers of blackcurrant sauce, blackberry parfait and raspberry sorbet on an almond dacquoise base and covered with a joconde band.
  • Cassate pistache: Pistachio ice cream dome filled with cassata filling (like vanilla ice cream with dried fruits soaked in kirsch) - originally from Italy.
  • Citrons/oranges givrés: hollowed out lemons/oranges refilled with their respective sorbets.
  • Passoa: ice cream cake with layers of passion fruit sauce, Cointreau parfait and blackberry sorbet on an almond dacquoise base and covered with a joconde band.
  • Plombières: rich ice cream concoctions studded with alcohol macerated dried fruits - a bestseller in France, we're told by chef!!
  • Roussillon: ice cream cake with layers of raspberry sauce, pistachio parfait and apricot sorbet on an almond dacquoise base and covered with a joconde band.
  • Vacherin: Meringue cake filled with an assortment of sorbet and ice cream flavours. (that pithiviers-like cream piped on the top is bloody hard to master!)
  • William: ice cream cake with layers of pear sauce, caramel parfait and vanilla ice cream on an almond dacquoise base and covered with a joconde band.
Naturally there was a "degu" on Friday afternoon where we had the chance to try out everything we had made (not that we hadn't tried all the individual components already!). I think my favourite cake was the William, followed by the Roussillon (our group made this one!), Bourgogne and Passoa. Am still not convinced by the alcoholic fruits and ice cream combo so favoured by chef tho! Luckily, despite all the ice cream I scoffed, I did not suffer from brain freeze, ha! ha!

This week has definitely sowed the seeds for making ice cream in the future - I only hope that I can reproduce what we made here in school :)