I took the final exam at the FCI last week, which was quite an event. It's an important test that comprises 50 percent of your final level grade, but unlike any college exam, there's not much studying you can do to prepare. After 6 months of training, you can either cook or you can't. Things go smoothly, or there's an unforeseen disaster (ie. knocking your pot of sauce over 10 minutes before plating. Yikes.) Making it more stressful, the panel of judges is chosen from the New York restaurant industry, which means professionals from places like Jean Georges and Brasserie 8 1/2 are grading your dishes.
To get a sense of the process, the day proceeds something like this:
7 am – Wake up and pray that you don't receive the "worst pairing." Students must prepare 2 dishes, 4 servings of each: an appetizer and meat course, or fish and dessert course. There's always a worst pairing of the bunch, which is either personal (ie. a fear of searing duck breast) or a universally acknowledged pain (ie. the bass and chocolate cake on our final). Being a culinary student, chances are that you're willing to sell your soul for that appetizer pick. Pastry is mysterious and daunting.
8:15 am – Arrive at school and drink consecutive cups of coffee and/or chain smoke with fellow doomed classmates outside. Receive pitying looks from other students.
9 am – Begin the written exam. For us, it was having to recite a full recipe from Level 6 (ingredients, procedure etc.). Nothing too scary.
9:20 am – Pick your pairing out of a toque. The appetizer-meat people get to gloat. The fish-dessert people get consoling pats on the back. It's nice. You want to smack the relieved grins off their faces (I got the bass and chocolate. I'm only mildly bitter, I swear).
9:30 am – Game time! The appetizer-meat students are placed in one room, the fish-dessert in another. To discourage ingredient-grabbing chaos, a tray with your produce is prearranged in the fridge. Spices are up for grabs, as are all of your pastry ingredients (flour, sugar etc). Get your game plan solidified, and start cranking out food.
9:40 am – 2:50-ish pm – Cooking. Sandwiches are provided for lunch, but they're just there to mock you. There's no time for sandwiches, and even if there was, your stomach is in too many knots to eat one. The first plating is 12:45, and while staggered, the second dish is always delivered to the judges 45 minutes after your first. As you work, proctors patrol the room, ready to take off points for messy stations, method errors and timing mishaps. Dirty rag on your cutting board? Point off. Plating without gloves? Big point off. 10 minutes late on your first dish? Go home. Timing is the hardest and most important part – when to cook what, when to finish a dish, when to plate. Misjudging at any point can have serious repercussions grade-wise.
2:51 – Finally run to the bathroom.
3:00 – 4:00 pm – Time to face the judges! You've been running trays of food down the hallway, where a waiter takes it and spirits it off into a mysterious room. Now you get to see who's on the receiving end. A glass of champagne is handed to you upon entrance, which is both a celebratory gesture and a way to soften the coming blow. The judges cook in some of the best restaurants in the city. You're a culinary student. Even if you score top marks, they're still going to have something to say in the way of constructive criticism. The most common complaint across the board was lack of seasoning (when you think you've over-salted, add some more). Our judges were nice enough to preface their worst criticisms with stories of their own kitchen failures. An overheard from another judging table: "This dish was a disaster from the start." Ouch.
4:00 – ? pm/am – It sounds like a place in a children's book, but Toad Hall, the FCI's unofficial watering hole, is not a place for the kiddies. The entire class, plus some chef instructors, head to this dive pub after the final. Everyone is tired but wired, no one has eaten or drunken very much water. It's a perfect recipe for drunken debauchery, and that's basically what ensues. There are shots, toasts and possibly some bar-top dancing, all before it gets dark out. If you manage to stay out past sundown, chances are you don't remember it.