It seemed like this week would never come. Okay, maybe I was just having too much fun and didn't want it to come. But alas, our final days in the BU kitchen arrived and were expected to be the culmination of everything we'd learned all semester. First was our final project, then graduation—two concluding events that tested our limits as students, as cooks, and as a team.
We had been hearing about the elusive "final project" since orientation. The individual challenge consisted of preparing an appetizer, main course, and dessert for our panel of core instructors. We were assessed on menu design, planning, proper execution, and timing. In previous semesters, students were given certain ingredients to work with, but we learned just days before that we had free reign (a blessing and a curse). We were given four hours to prepare in the kitchen on Tuesday, then we had to adhere to a strict timetable for service on Wednesday. The key was to have as much done in advance so that only last minute "firing" was happening on Wednesday.
Choosing what to make occupied every brain cell until I was forced to submit my menu and ingredient list a few days before the big day. What is my signature dish? What can I make flawlessly? What will impress James Beard awarded chefs? Even though we were encouraged to keep things simple and "just cook something well", the pressure was on. In the end, I chose to make wild mushroom risotto as an appetizer, seared striped bass with spring vegetables for my main, and rhubarb buttermilk panna cotta for dessert. Every dish was something I had made before and I even practiced them over the weekend. I thought my menu was foolproof.
Damn was I wrong.
Ironically, the biggest disaster ended up being the simplest dish. When I went to unmold the panna cotta I had prepared the day before, there was a thick layer of clear gelatin at the bottom of each ramekin. I panicked. It was 12:30 and my dessert had to be plated at exactly 3:28. I knew it wasn't enough time for a new batch to chill and set, but I went ahead anyway, poured a fresh buttermilk mixture into cups, stashed them deep in the freezer and prayed. In the end, the panna cotta barely made it in front of the chefs before it slumped into a pool of slightly-thickened cream. I knew it still tasted good, but this was NOT part of my plan.
I thought my other courses were executed pretty well. To dress up my mushroom risotto, I had prepared ramp oil—a bright green emulsion of oil, blanched ramps, and a bit of garlic and parsley. I drizzled it along the edge of the shallow bowl and it created a bright frame for the pale and creamy risotto. One chef thought it needed more of a garnish. Another thought it could have used more butter and cheese. Meh, I liked it.
As a sort of "nage" for the striped bass, I had made a delicate broth with leeks, fennel, parsnips, parsley, celery, and white wine. I also blanched some bright spring peas, sugar snap peas, and julienned fennel and leeks. The seared fish filet sat on top of the vegetables and was crowned with a dollop of basil aioli and basil chiffonade. As one chef said, it looked like "spring on a plate". Definitely my intention. But another instructor found the fish slightly too salty and somewhat undercooked. My fish was undercooked—how embarrassing! I tried so hard not to overcook it (as fish often is), but I guess I overcompensated.
All in all, there was a good balance of praise and criticism, but I found the final critique to be anti-climactic. There was so much thought and preparation put into the dishes and not much reward. I guess I daydreamed about wowing the chefs. I guess I was disappointed with myself that I screwed up the dessert and undercooked the fish. The pressure got the best of me. I wanted it to be perfect and it wasn't. But hey, it could have been a lot worse and I was grateful for the opportunity to cook for such a distinguished panel of culinary professionals.
Besides, there was no time to sulk. Immediately after our final project the students needed to team together to plan and execute a graduation dinner for our friends and family. We'd had a meeting or two and some emails bounced around, but I don't think anyone realized the enormity of the task at hand. We had a ton of food to make. This meant we had to come to some consensus, effectively communicate, assign tasks, and take ownership. With 11 different opinions and personalities, it wasn't easy. There was some bickering and a few intense moments, but we managed to pull it together.
I was nominated to design the menu, program, and table tents. Another student created a slide show. The two graduation co-chairs ordered ingredients, organized decorations, and planned table settings. And everyone cooked their behinds off. We expected about 70 people at the dinner and ceremony. I was in charge of making arancini, Sicilian rice balls. Together with the help of other students, we rolled about 165 golf ball sized appetizers that were filled with fontina and spring peas. I was also tasked with baking 12 batches of cantucini (almond biscotti) to fill take-home gift bags for all our guests. That kept me busy for a while.
Then there was the gnocchi incident.
After some of the students had prepared four batches of the Italian potato dumplings, I had the brilliant idea of storing them in plastic tubs in the freezer. "Sure, make two layers with parchment. It'll be fine," I said. But we arrived the next day to find a mess of sticky dough. Not only should they have been spread out on sheet trays (in one layer), the freezer was on the fritz! I felt completely responsible and with only hours to go before the dinner, I remade another 4 batches of gnocchi. Thanks to my gnocchi partner in crime, Tim, we came out on top. Phew.
It was a lot of work, but cooking in a relaxed atmosphere for graduation was a nice contrast to the stress of final project day. Maybe everything didn't go exactly as planned, but our friends and family were blown away. "Outstanding!" said one of our guests. Now that's the reward I was looking for.