Examination – Certificate de Base
When I first woke up on the day of the exam, the best way to describe it was that I was at peace. Literally, I was settled, clearheaded and happy. I felt somehow lighter.
I was not stressed or nervous, it was excitement and overwhelmingly peaceful.
I had a great long shower and sat down to think about what I wanted to eat for lunch before the exam.
I cleaned and sorted my knife kit, making sure I had all the necessary tools.
I sat on the edge of the bed, in my tiny studio in Paris, and I was … Happy.
I studied for another two hours and went to school early.
On the metro I was consecutively serenaded by incredible classical by violinist as I passed through Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and then awesome Jazz on a saxophone through Montparnasse Benveinüe.
All the signs were pointing towards a leisurely and successful practical exam … at least that is what I was telling myself at the time!
This is the culmination of two and a half months of hard work and toil for 56 individuals.
Today the will take place over 4 separate sessions – 8:30, 12:30, 15:30 or 18:30.
Out of a possible 8 recipes, 3 have been selected by the examiners and as the candidate enters the room they draw out a coloured disc.
The three groups are stationed in distinct areas of the central island and after a quick briefing the exam commences.
Each disc determines your major task for the 2 and a half hour session, but the technical element must also be produced during the time limit.
Each student is given a random identifying number, which only the supervising chef knows, but the ‘blinded’ outsourced chefs who do the final marking are blissfully unaware and supposedly unbiased.
You are constantly evaluated on your organisation, cleanliness, and technique with final points also given to taste and presentation.
The cakes and tart case are to be completed to the best of your ability, approved by the examiner in the kitchen and will then be sent down to the basement for a formal evaluation and marking by the three outsourced chefs.
They have certainly had many years of experience running these practical exams but practice cannot account for certain variables.
Students are facing each other and producing the same cakes – visual aids and helpful reminders abound
There is one supervising chef and one assistant in the exam room – certain supervising chefs have different attitudes and can influence the overall feeling of the room, certain chefs have clear bias and are willing to help students in a variety of ways, two different chefs run two sessions each.
The room – our kitchens are never the same temperature and when certain chefs do not allow use of the fridges for certain steps, especially with pastry, things can become very difficult.
The ingredients – when searching for cold hard butter for certain steps, it doesn’t help when things are already melted!
And so a relatively straightforward practical exam can become very interesting indeed.
Here are your friendly students, the ones that by now you have gotten to know quite well…
This is Group D, my class, my colleagues, my friends…
Here we all are on the last day of class in Basic Pastry, Thursday the 26th of May.
Everyone had arrived at school early and were revising diligently and going over questions regarding method with each other.
We were all joking with each other and discussing our cunning plans to beat this exam – fair and square!
Somehow I was still feeling good about it all.
We have worked hard to get to this point so the nervous tension and excitement levels are riding high!
We walked up the stairs to wait outside our exam room – the second floor practical kitchen and waited with baited breath for the chef to open the door.
When he opened the door I wasn’t shocked by who faced me… This was not only a practical pastry exam this was going to be a personal challenge.
It was of course the demonstration master himself, the only man to make me unsettled in the kitchen.
As it turns out the chosen three cakes were…
Red – Moka
Green – Dacquoise
Yellow – Saint-Honoré
And the technical element – a perfectly formed, French tart case with crimped edges
We each picked a small coloured button – I received yellow and found out that my focus for the session was the Saint-Honore!
Many of my friends were faced with equally difficult favourites of the Mocha and the Dacquoise.
As we entered the room, we were each separated for the first time in 11 weeks, having normally worked as a group of 6 at one end of the table – ALWAYS!
Time starts NOW!
We all started with our 2 hour and a half time limit and everyone was off and racing… but first I took a deep breath.
My plan from the very beginning was to remain completely calm, move slowly and plan ahead.
I prepared all my mise-en-place carefully and measured all my ingredients before I lifted a single finger to mix the pastry. I thought steps ahead and prepped ingredients and equipment early whilst keeping my station as clean as possible. I was proud
Then things started to go wrong! The butter was too soft and too hot so our pastry became brittle and difficult to roll out in one piece being even harder to transfer!
After a failed attempt it worked and then I started on my choux pastry which worked like a charm. It went into the oven with the four other students who were on duty for the Saint-Honoré.
Next on the cards was the tart case itself which was a nightmare, the butter remained too soft despite me putting it the fridge to cool down. The pastry was like putty and had little form and resilience so would droop with the slightest tension. To form it into a proper tart case with crimped edges was near impossible and I had to restart three times and still patch it before I was reluctantly forced to proceed.
My cream took a while to whisk but came together and my caramel diligently if slowly became a pale golden colour ready for dipping the choux.
Once it was out of the oven I came back into my element powering through dipping the choux into the hot sugar without burning myself whilst getting just the right distribution of caramel.
My hands were working like a trained machine and my final assembly was coming together nicely. I took my Chantilly cream from the fridge filled the centre and then piped double curls between each of my caramel choux using a star tip. I went looking everywhere for my Saint-Honore piping tip which had gone missing from my station, and so after getting a little frustrated at yet another piece of equipment being misappropriated, I reluctantly but quickly borrowed one from a friend.
I began piping with confidence as I had just practice this technique yesterday quite successfully.
I ran out of cream half way…
Luckily the examiner allowed me to use the left overs of another candidate. A little runny from already being used in warm hands it was difficult but I made it work!
And so with 20 minutes left on the clock I cleaned up my station and presented my finished Saint-Honoré and tart case to the chef.
I had finished my exam… I think I passed!
Unfortunately, after taking just a couple of photos I had to stop… it seems that although others had already taken photos I was not allowed to and so alas I can’t show a proper photo of my completed cakes.
Nevertheless, here are my favourite Mocha and Dacquoise made by three of my close friends in the exam… They rocked it!!
Here are some of my friends Saint-Honorés…
And here is a blurry and pixelated close up of mine.
I will receive my final marks at graduation on Tuesday!
I was in the mood for celebrations having just finished my basic pastry course and quickly changed and packed up all my belongings and life into small bags.
It was then that I was convinced to stay for the chef invitee to see the Japanese Chef work his magic.
And so after already changing into my normal clothes I took everything back to the locker room put on my chefs outfit for the last time and went to sit in the winter garden.
Everyone was buzzing either having just finished or just about to go into their pastry exams.
We had a glass of sparkling wine and headed into the Chef Invitee.