Knives sharpened, apron tied and oven gloves at the ready. Sat here now, the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the night sky seems a distant memory but the pressure of the kitchen that lured me to the French Capital is ever present in my mind. This time last year I was wearing in my safety shoes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, at the beginning of my seven-month gastronomic adventure.
The Year Abroad for me was a million miles away from University Park. After endless years of classes and uniforms, cookery school, where the wooden spoon replaced the fountain pen, was a serious ‘culture shock’. We still had lessons, known as Demonstrations, but instead of homework we had Practicals. There was still a uniform, but instead of woolly tights and below-the-knee skirts, we had Chefs’ Whites. I loved my school years and I often feel nostalgic about those carefree days but I have to admit that cookery school takes a bit of beating.
I learnt quickly that there was no time for queasiness in a Cordon Bleu kitchen; whether it was blood from a finger or blood from a fish on the chopping board you just had to get over it and get on with it, even if it was only half past eight in the morning. Learning things quickly and doing them even quicker was vital in the kitchen; we were eased into the swing of things in the first week and then second week hit us like a saucepan in the face. Naturally we tried to run before we could walk, desperately trying to impress the Chefs who scared the living daylights out of us with their booming French commands. But speedy chopping only meant one thing: with pressure comes speed and with speed comes mistakes. From a scrambled hollandaise to a pan of burnt onions it was one disaster to the next until we found our feet in the kitchen.
I would be tempted to say that my biggest challenge at school was with the live produce. I could handle the fish eyes, the rabbits’ hearts and the chickens’ lungs but I drew a line at things that moved. First it was the crabs in Basic Cuisine that escaped from the bowl and scampered sideways around the sink, second it was the Lobster. As I sat watching carefully in the Lobster Demonstration, I caught something moving in the corner of my eye; naturally I was perplexed as to how the vegetables had come to life but then it dawned on me.
At that point several things ran through my head, primarily, “How do I avoid using lobster in Lobster Soup?” Unfortunately, that’s not possible and in the Practical Class there came a point of no return, my soup needed a lobster. Everyone has their irrational fears, mine is leggy crustaceans. I opened the fridge door cautiously, only to be confronted by the menacing orange beasts kicking their legs in protest. My eyes welled up and I was frozen to the spot; to my relief the Chef promptly clocked the look of terror on my face and swooped in, deftly selecting a lobster and plunging it to its death.
That was not the only traumatic Practical for me at School. Over seven months I can assure you there were many incidents. In fact, within five minutes of being in the kitchen I had cut myself, but cuts and burns became something we learned to take in our stride because, if you’ll excuse the pun, we had bigger fish to fry. I can promise you that in a battle between flesh and knife, the knife will always win: I have a night in Paris A&E to show for it.
Working in the kitchen environment was, at the risk of sounding dramatic, hugely draining. Unless you’ve worked in a kitchen before, it’s hard to imagine the toll it takes both physically and emotionally. The sheer heat of the hobs makes it a stressful place to be, let alone the beady eyes of the Chefs watching over your every move. I remember one particular Practical in the early stages of the Diploma: it went from bad to worse as I burnt my onions to a crisp and then proceeded to drop my meat on the floor as I pulled it from the oven, twice. One mistake after another was made in that class and I tried desperately to hold it together but eventually I gave in and left the room in tears. I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last.
There were ups and downs over the seven months but without doubt the good times exceeded the bad times. Unsurprisingly, my time at Le Cordon Bleu raced by and before I knew it I was packing up my studio apartment ready for the next stage of my Year Abroad. It was an incredible experience and opportunity and although my time at cookery school has come to an end, I will take what I learnt there into every kitchen I find myself in. I am by no means a culinary encyclopaedia but I have the foundations of traditional French cuisine on which to build and a vast library of fond memories from a once in a lifetime experience.