Final Exams for Chefs, or How Edible Manhattan Helped Crush the Dreams of Budding Bouluds (Just Kidding)

B1: Excellent crispiness on the confit, but the sauce was a little too reduced, the salad a little too salty.

Last week we had the good fortune to get to judge a portion of the final exams for a few culinary students at the French Culinary Institute down at the corner of Grand and Broadway.  Finals are given nearly every 20 days, and part of the process is having a panel of expert judges (that’s us!) review six dishes. We’re given two of each dish at a time, each made by two different teams of two chefs-in-training, their hard work brought out anonymously by an elegant waitstaff on plates given names like B1 (that’s B1’s chicken leg confit, roast chicken breast, Meyer Lemon risotto and arugula salad above) and B2.

How it works is like this: We’re given photos of what the dishes are supposed to look like plated — a tortellini in brodo with vegetables, seared hanger steak with wine sauce and a thinly sliced, bacon-baked potato in old-school French style, grilled squid over creamed corn and blanched fava beans with shellfish broth, scallops with a tower of lightly dressed beets and steamed artichoke hearts — along with a run-down of basic ingredients and instructions like medium rare, lightly seared, etc.

Students have made these dishes a handful of times already, and this is where they’re supposed to show not culinary creativity but mastery of what they learned in class, meaning taste (really seasoning the food properly) and technique, which includes everything from cutting beets into a perfect brunoise, to searing all three scallops perfectly medium-rare, to making sure plates are clean and steaks are still warm and sauces at the right density.

In other words, not do they have the skills to be a celebrity chef, but could they maybe go work for one at a really really really entry level.

Our job was to judge the dish overall on a few basics (seasoning, temperature, plating, etc.) and then a specific few components, such as the doneness of the protein or the knife skills on the vegetables, ranking them all between 1 and 10, with anything below a 7 as a failing grade. Rest assured, our review is just one teeny part of their final tests: If they’ve passed the class they just have to take the cooking part over again till they nail it.

They’re nervous, and so are us tasters, really, since we have to address them in person at the end of the class. It’s easy to say B1’s salad is too salty on a sheet, but it’s hard to tell Erica to her face her pate brisee wasn’t perfect. Most of the time, thankfully, students usually knew of the imperfections on our plates before we even pointed them out.

But what was most fascinating — beyond seeing clearly the difference in skills between a chef at the beginning of their career and one several decades in —  is how differently all us judges approached the plates, depending on our backgrounds.

There was a front-of-the-house restaurant manager, who checked each plate carefully for smudges and the accuracy of diced vegetables. The Italian butcher obsessed over the doneness of the meat. The Italian chefs remarked on the al dente-ness of the risotto, the handiwork of the homemade pasta sheets. All the chefs remarked on the viscosity of sauces, and whether they tasted like the consomme they were supposed to or more like stock or bouillon. And all of us noted whether things were too salty or too sweet — which things often were — and why the student who burned his Napoleons felt like he needed to leave them on the plate. (They’re told to: though in a restaurant, the chefs told them during a review, it’s better to serve nothing than something so obviously wrong.)

How did the students do, overall? With the exception of some raggedy ravioli or that one waaaay overcooked Napoleon, most of these chefs passed nearly every entry: A few knocking it out of the park on a dish or two; the majority needing the tweaks here and there that come with experience.

Which is just as it should be, and a big reminder to this home cook that there’s a very wide difference indeed between what I do behind my own stove and what the professionals must do 100 times a night in 100 different ways in a city where every eater — armed with video cameras, Yelp apps and barbed tongues — is a critic. So kudos indeed to the class of July 2010.

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