The black box. More daunting than it sounds, thanks in no small measure to television programs like Chopped, which have sensationalized this venerable culinary test.
Nevertheless, it was all that stood between me and the proverbial door; my final exam before bidding farewell to Red River College, its kitchens and classrooms, my classmates and culinary instructors.
It’s been an interesting two years — and it all boiled down to this: pickerel fillets, shrimp, eggs, semolina flour, Belgian endive, heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, golden raisins, and mustard seeds.
Using all of those items, I had three hours to produce two entree plates featuring both proteins, two vegetables, a starch, a sauce and an appropriate garnish.
I’ll admit, the semolina threw me for a bit of a loop. I’d been so prepared for a grain-based starch (i.e., Basmati or Jasmine rice), or a potato derivative like gnocchi, it hadn’t even occurred to me our chef might toss semolina in our box and expect us to whip up a batch of pasta. But that’s precisely what I did; fettuccine to be exact.
With the pasta I prepared a roasted tomato and bell pepper sauce, and served it all with asparagus tips, shaved endive and pan-fried garlic-and-herb shrimp. I also breaded the fillets, pan-fried them and served them with a mustard seed aioli, marinated raisins and a parsley and yellow pepper salad.
Was it a knock-out? No. I’m mature enough to recognize the plate’s many weaknesses. Still, being my first time working under such conditions (no prior knowledge of the ingredients, and a limited time-frame to develop and produce the finished product), I set down my plates at the appointed hour with equal measures of relief and satisfaction.
Of course, immediately my mind was racing: thinking of the ingredients and the seemingly limitless permutations of finished plates they afforded. I almost wished I could do it all over again just for the chance to do something different. Almost.
It’s hard to believe my time at the college is over. No fanfare. No farewell. Just a black box, a shaking of hands, and good wishes between those of us testing that day.
I keep reminding myself: this isn’t an ending, it’s just the beginning. These past two years were merely preparation for the actual culinary journey that lays before me. Where will that journey take me? What will I see, and smell, and taste along the way? If I had the answers, what’d be the point of embarking on it?