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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?

Onward.

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That, broadly speaking, were the parameters of my final lunch dining practical exam. To call it ‘intense’ really doesn’t do it justice, especially when the culinary arts instructors themselves acknowledge it as being the most difficult exam of the entire two-year program.

Naturally, there were a few additional stipulations: the first course had to be a soup or salad; the main had to include a fabricated protein (i.e., stuffed chicken breast, filleted fish), starch, two vegetables and a sauce; dessert had to incorporate a custard of some kind (i.e., ice cream, creme brulee)

The exam was the culmination of my first stint in the college’s fine dining restaurant (the second, next term, for evening dining). During the past six weeks, I moved throughout the kitchen, day-by-day, station-by-station, menu item by menu item. In all, it was a tremendously valuable experience and, better still, was excellent preparation for the final exam. For I’d had six weeks to hone my menu, my skills, and, most importantly, my ability to manage my time efficiently and effectively.

So, what was my menu?

For starters, I served a tomato and fennel soup, garnished with a gorgonzola cream and crispy-fried fennel. For my main, I offered pork tenderloin tournedos with an Apple and Goat Cheese Gratin, Dijon Cream Sauce, Chateau Potatoes, Braised Fennel, Grilled Asparagus and Red Peppers. And, I finished it off with individual pineapple-polenta upside-down cakes with toffee-lime ice cream.

Did I get it done? I did: by 11 o’clock I had plated my soup, by five after, my main, and by 11:10, dessert.

Were there bumps along the way? You bet: soup lacked depth; potatoes should’ve been poached longer; the dessert plate lacked a contrasting colour; above all, I didn’t work as cleanly as I should have or as I normally do.

Did I pass? Absolutely.

Another course, another exam.

After seven interesting weeks in the cold kitchen, studying everything from salads to sandwiches, cold dressings to canapés, sushi to sculpting with lard, I took my practical exam yesterday; a four-hour marathon of sorts.

Unlike my exam in Basic Food Prep, which involved me drawing a series of recipes from a hat and making them in 3 hours, I knew what was expected of me walking into the Garde Manager lab:

  • 1 litre of mayonnaise
  • 500 millilitres of Ranch dressing
  • 500 mililitres of Thousand Island dressing
  • 6 open-faced sandwiches (2 smoked salmon, 2 egg salad, and 2 ham-and-swiss)
  • 12 canapés (4 salami cornets, 4 ham salad, and 4 smoked salmon)
  • 4 chef’s salads
  • 4 fruit plates

What made this particular exam so challenging wasn’t the recipes (sandwiches are fairly straightforward!); it was the fact that nothing, save for having eggs already hard-boiled, was done for us. Everything from making the canapé toasts, to slicing the meats and cheeses, to preparing the requisite sandwich and canapé spreads, had to be done in those four hours.

Our instructor had encouraged us to come with a timeline; a schedule of sorts mapping out how we would use the time we had available to complete all of the tasks.  Whilst I had, indeed, put something down on paper, I didn’t really need it: I had been obsessing about the exam for so long I had internalized every step completely.

And so, when the clock struck 7:30 a.m., I went into autopilot.

Assemble the necessary ingredients for the dressings; make the mayo, then the Ranch and Thousand Island; move on to the egg salad; further prep for the sandwiches and canapés; prepare the requisite spreads and make croutons; assemble sandwiches; wash lettuce and assemble chef’s salads; slice the fruit and plate it.

I’ve never done ballet, but feel like I came pretty close yesterday. As the clock struck 11:00 a.m. — three-and-a-half hours after we started and a full 30 minutes before the deadline — I was laying out everything I’d made for grading. The whole time I was thinking to myself, “where has the time gone?”

After a short break, I was summoned into my instructor’s office to receive my final grade. I was nervous. I knew I’d done well, but also firmly believe, in all things, I could have done better.

After a brief chat, he delivered his verdict: A+.

As Emeril says, “Bam!”

I took my first exam in seven years today.

It was unlike any I had taken before.

When I think “exam,” I immediately think: essays, formulas, pages of multiple-choice questions, a cavernous study hall, row after row of desks, silence, cramped hands from writing under duress. Until today, my mind did not think: 5 recipes, 3 hours, 1 plate.

That, however, was the nature of today’s; the culmination of my six weeks in Lab CM03, the Basic Food Preparation kitchen at Red River College.

Six weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed I could finish such an exam, let alone do well on it. And yet, six weeks later, I was able to walk into that kitchen, select a sheet of paper on which were written the names of five recipes (pork cutlets; brown sauce; braised red cabbage; scalloped potatoes; minestrone soup), and, within three hours, produce all five from scratch.

It was intense, to be sure. But it was a good kind of intensity; the kind that inspires and encourages.

Sure, I could have done better: there was too much béchamel in the scalloped potato dish; too little braising liquid had evaporated from the red cabbage; I outright forgot the minestrone’s spaghetti. Still, all in all, I did pretty well.

While I can’t say for certain how I’ll do on future exams, I’m definitely enjoying today’s small victory.