I judged the midterm exam at The French Culinary Institute this past week, a plus of being an FCI alumni. While the final is judged by distinguished members of the New York culinary scene, the midterm dishes are graded by us not-so distinguished former students.
The midterm is a bane or a blast, depending on which side of the judges’ table you're on. For students, it's the first big ol' scary cooking test, the half-way mark in the program, an opportunity to prove yourself in the kitchen. For the alumni, it's a chance to knock down a few glasses of wine while catching up with your former classmates and chefs. It's a win-win situation for us judges – we're either sampling tasty food, or enjoying a good bashing session over a poorly done plate.
Alright, that makes us sound heartless. To make up for it, I'll post a little cheat sheet for future midterm takers. Most of these hints seem blindingly obvious, but the mistakes below occur frequently during both the midterm and final. And if you're not an FCIer, don't worry, most hints apply to any culinary school test.
- Season. You know salt, those little white granules that make food taste good? Use it. The #1 complaint across the board for both the midterm and final is underseasoned dishes. The judges are most likely drinking wine, soda or water with citrus, all of which contain acid that dulls the tongue's ability to taste salt. So even if you taste the components in the kitchen and they seem sufficiently seasoned, add more.
- Serve hot food hot, cold food cold. I know, duh. But it was surprising that students actually turned out cool soup or warm apple tart (in the French preparation, traditional tarte aux pommes is served cold). In terms of hot food, don't expect a sauce to heat a piece of meat that's been kept on ice, or a warm plate to heat up a sauce. Make sure the different components are all heated separately, or throw the finished plate in the oven.
- Cook your chicken. Please, please cook your chicken. Underdone fish, vegetables, pretty much anything else will lose a point or two, but raw chicken is an automatic fail. With a hunk of potential salmonella sitting on the plate, judges are unlikely to taste it or anything else. That being said, don't overcook the chicken either. The best trick for a dish like "poulet roti grandmere" where a whole chicken is roasted and then quartered is to cook the bird just until the breast meat is done (internal temp around 160 F). The dark meat in the thighs and legs won't be cooked, but you can stick them back in the oven after quartering the chicken. If you leave the whole bird roasting until the dark meat is at 165 F, you'll have dry breasts (and no one likes that).
- Take time to fix mistakes. There's nothing worse than going before the judges, and having them tell you what you already knew was wrong. It's downright frustrating. The consomme is greasy? Take a second to run a paper towel over it. Sauce too thin? Find the widest, shallowest pan in the kitchen and transfer the sauce so it will reduce faster. Unless you're going to be seriously late, it's worth the extra time to fix what's broke.
- Keep points in the kitchen. For the most part, the majority of points come off at the judge's table. For both the midterm and final, the hardest critics are those sampling your food. The chef judges at the school tend to be more sympathetic, and they're the ones in the kitchen taking points off for messiness or improper technique. Working clean will provide a cushion to fall back on if your food isn't up to par.
- And in that vain, be on the good side of your chef instructors. If you've been a good student throughout the program, it will probably help your grade on the midterm. And I don't mean kitchen rock star good, I mean students who have shown that they care, that are willing to come early or stay late to work on weaknesses. Your chef judges will have more sympathy with points if they know you're earnestly trying.
- Don't obsess over the small stuff. Taillage is important, and judges certainly look at knife skills. But if you have 12 textbook perfect cocotte potatoes and no sauce for your meat course, it's going to hurt.
- Don't argue or make excuses. There's no point – the judges have already submitted the grades before the student-judge consultation. Arguing just pisses them off. We had a student try to argue his way out of a raw chicken incident, and it was both awkward and futile. Take the criticism constructively, and if there's a serious disagreement, speak to your head instructor afterwards. At the very least keep quiet until the post-exam happy hour at Toad Hall, where you can gripe openly about us @#%^ judges.
- Don’t stress! The midterm is tough, but there are no surprises. The dishes you are given are those that you’ve been working on the entire month of Level 3. The kitchen is the same, the equipment is in the same place. And most important, the chefs at the FCI want their students to do well. The quality of instruction is top notch throughout the program, and chefs in Level 3 go out of their way to help students prepare for the exam. So take a deep breath, and make sure you have plenty of salt on your station.