Learned: Never attempt a soufflé for your culinary school practical examination.
Last night was our grand finale to Module 3 – a timed practical under which we had 90 minutes to prepare, plate and present a sautéed supreme of chicken, pan sauce, a potato dish of our choice, and a vegetable side. The catch? We’d be drawing one of six vegetables out of a hat at the very beginning of the practical, and would have to create our vegetable side on the fly.
Like a true type-A, I showed up for the practical armed with six different recipes – one for each of the six vegetables we could potentially be assigned. My recipes for a lemon-thyme pan sauce and Pommes Mousseline (a fluffy potato soufflé) were also on hand, but since I’d made several pan sauces and the soufflés before, I figured these were in the bag. The vegetable was the perceived wild card, as it was pretty impossible to plan out my use of those 90 minutes without knowing whether I’d be roasting, frying, or sauteing one veggie or another.
I, of course, drew the vegetable I dreaded the most: Broccoli. With zucchini, carrots, and the best – mixed mushrooms, all up for grabs, broccoli seemed like such a chore, a bitter green that has few redeeming preparations. I decided to keep it simple by blanching the broccoli to cook it halfway, and then sauteing it in a garlic-infused olive oil with red pepper flakes and sea salt, tossing with toasted pine nuts at the last-minute.
My goal for the practical was, aside from cooking everything well and putting up an attractive hot plate at the end of 90 minutes, to cook a meal that was true to my own style of cooking (and eating) – fresh, clean flavors that aren’t weighted down by too much grease or dairy, allowing the natural elements of the food to shine through. This dish, with just a touch of olive oil and the slightest richness from the pine nuts, happily accomplished this goal.
Beyond that, though, broccoli proved to be a blessing in disguise when I needed it most. While I had loathed the thought of these tree-shaped greens in the mix for the practical, I had failed to foresee the benefits of broccoli – it’s incredibly sturdy, retains its color, and reheats well without overcooking. In the final few minutes of the practical, when life becomes a blur of screaming-hot sizzle plates, oozing pan sauces, speckled plate rims and burnt finger tips, having a vegetable that is sitting happily warm in a covered pan on the back burner, requiring no attention save a last sprinkle of salt, is a god-send. Such was the case last night.
Because while I was feeling pleasantly surprised about the broccoli, secure in the citrusy tang to my pan sauce, and relieved that my chicken suprémes had achieved the ideal crispy exterior that ensures a moist inside, a growing part of my mind was locked in panic mode. The oven below my stove, labeled clearly with a large piece of masking tape that read “KEEP AT 300 F,” registered at barely the heat of a mid-August New York City heat wave… and my soufflé cups, bobbing slightly in a water-filled bain-marie, were pure liquid.
It was at this point that I felt as though I’d been transported into some alternate-Televised-Cooking-Competition-reality. There’s always that moment on, be it Top Chef, Chopped, Iron Chef America, where the cook realizes that the elaborate, sure-to-win dish he’d been betting it all on is flat-out failing. It might be burning, or have spilt, but more often than not in a timed competition, it just isn’t cooking fast enough. And here I was, experiencing this first hand.
My mind sprung into reaction mode, and I whipped the steaming bain-marie from the oven, running it across the kitchen to a much hotter 450 degree oven. I still had fifteen minutes on the clock, a pan sauce to make, chicken to rest, and broccoli to finish. On one hand, I said a prayer that the soufflés would finish in this time, and on the other, I knew my chances weren’t great. So I grabbed one of the four soufflé cups from the oven, a saute pan, and improvised.
My idea was to make a sort of pan-fried “potato crisp,” by sauteing a few thin layers of the soufflé mixture in hot oil. But my batter merely sputtered and burned in the oil, popping all over the pan and singing on the bottom while remaining liquid on the top. Dejected, I had no choice but to dump the pans burnt contents in the trash and press onward, mopping the sweat from my brow.
In the end, I set a beautiful plate with a swipe of honey-colored lemon-thyme sauce, topped with two golden-brown, crispy chicken breasts, and a small heap of jade-green broccoli florets studded with pearly pine nuts. But along the side, the goopy mess of the under cooked potato soufflé sucked the sauce off the plate like a sponge, and oozed its way through the broccoli like a volcanic flow.
Thankfully, chef saw in my dish what many of us see in the chefs who flounder in those television competitions – that attempting to make a potato soufflé in just 90 minutes (with three other components) was a huge risk, and just because these risks don’t always work out as planned doesn’t mean the vision and effort were for naught. Every failed attempt is a learning experience, if you use it as one, and twenty minutes later, when I removed the two remaining, finally cooked soufflés from the oven, the lesson was complete. I plated on in the center of a large, white “ICE” emblazoned plate, garnished it with two sprigs of thyme, and marched it over to chef, though my time for presentation had passed, refusing to accept defeat. And when he smiled, and said, “Much, much better,” I knew the lesson had been learned: finish, not just for the grade or the accolades, but for yourself.
That, of course, and never give up.