By: Ryan Hodros, Pastry and Culinary Arts Student
One of your most stressful experiences as an Auguste Escoffier student will be finals—the tests you take at the end of a block which tests all the skills you learned. I just finished my fundamentals block final, and while I didn’t exactly ace it (as the title of this entry might imply) I did get a low A. That doesn’t necessarily make me an expert, but I do know the few things I did wrong, and I wanted to share some tips and tricks that will help you when your first six weeks is up. Hopefully it will help you keep from freaking out and pump your grade up a few points.
1. Practice at home
It’s hard to imagine studying for a hand-on test. You know how to do the various tasks because you’ve already done them separately in class. You know how to cook your veg. You know how to butcher your protein. It’s all in your head and chances are good it’s already in your muscle memory. So why bother practicing?
First, because it’s an excuse to show off to your friends and family (and come on, if you want to be a chef, part of you wants to show off your cooking skills). But second, it will give you a very clear idea of how long each task takes to complete. This is incredibly important when it comes to the planning phase of your test (see below) because you probably don’t remember how long exactly it takes to sauté your veg, and this will give you a very firm timeframe.
Third, it will pump up your confidence. It’s easy to get flustered and convince yourself that you’re doomed during the test, and saying to yourself “I’ve already done this and it’s awesome” is a great way to calm down. (More on this later.)
2. Go in with a plan
For these big tests, you’re required to make your own production schedule, which you can make as vague or as detailed as you like. This might seem like unnecessary paperwork before a hands-on exam, but having a plan is more important than you’d think. Your chef instructor will be very clear about all the rules of the exam, but make sure you understand everything that’s required of you before you start.
Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before the day of the test. Make sure you remember all your equipment (if you don’t bring a full uniform and a knife kit, you’ll be sent home and receive a zero!) And most importantly, figure out a plan for the day that will put you on track for success. Everyone knows how to cook one thing successfully, but for these big tests, you’ll have to cook multiple things within a certain time frame and present at a specific time (just like when you go out into the industry).
That means your protein, your starch, your veg, your sauce, and your salad/dressing all have to be hot (or cold) and ready to eat simultaneously, not whenever you happen to be done, but at your assigned time. And you won’t have your chef instructor to tell you “fire the entrée!” like you have in class—that’s entirely up to you. Your planned schedule of events will help you knock that out like a pro.
3. Time management
This might seem redundant, but time management and planning and two entirely separate entities. This includes all the little things that you can’t put into a plan but really need to keep in mind. When you’re cutting your herbs, can you also cut your carrots and onions before you change boards and butcher your protein? When you’re dropping that hot pan off at dish, can you pick up your sauté pan and spatula before you return to your station? When you grab chinois strainer from the wall, do you also need a ladle to push your sauce all the way through?
This might seem petty, but the fewer steps you take zipping around the kitchen to get the tools and ingredients you need, the less exhausted you’ll be when the deadline comes looming over the horizon, and the less time you’ll waste in transit. I have a serious problem with this, as it’s really easy for a need to pop into my head like “You don’t have your tasting spoon” and stop everything and go grab that right now. This wastes precious time (lo and behold, I was three minutes late on my presentation and lost a point). Chefs should always keep efficiency in mind whenever they do anything, and this is a great place to practice.
4. Work cleanly
Another obvious one, but it’s really easy when it gets down to the wire to start ignoring sanitation and safety in the name of speed. Wipe down and sanitize your station constantly. Set up containers for compost and trash. Have a tray with all your gear under your station to keep it clear and only pull the tools you need. Being fast is important, but you don’t want to cross-contaminate your salad with your protein and give your chef instructor belly grumbles down the line.
And you look more professional. A clear station with bins for finished product and raw product, wiped clean and free of debris, makes you look more professional and gives the impression that you have your act together. This will impress your chef instructor, but most importantly, it will pump up your confidence in yourself. A cluttered station will clutter your mind and make you freak out more easily. Which brings us to…
5. Keep your cool
Every student has that moment on test day where it all comes crashing down. Maybe you burnt your roux. Maybe you accidentally turned the heat off under your potatoes. Maybe you knocked your classmate’s cream puffs on the floor. It doesn’t matter, the “worst thing ever” has just happened, and now it’s all over and you’re the worst student ever and you just want to throw down your knives, go home, and crawl under all the blankets.
But keep in mind, very rarely does anything happen in these tests that can’t be fixed. If you burnt the roux, make another. If your potatoes haven’t been cooking, fire them back up and keep soldiering on. Take a deep breath and remember how much you enjoy cooking. That’s why you’re there! Keep a song in your head and the joy of cooking in your heart and don’t let the weight of grades and exams and other “serious business” get in the way of the things that make you happy
All of these things are easy to say but hard to do, but if you keep them in mind and go in prepared, all five steps will be easy enough that you’ll get a good grade. The chef instructors aren’t easy graders, but if you take joy in what you do, it will show in your food.