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A Competition Memoir

It's 10 at night and I've been wrestling with a few stories that I want to present to my writer's group for critique.  Trouble is I can't make up my mind which story I want them to read.  I'm probably going to let them see the following story I'm going to post.  It's about being in a professional chef's competition.  I'm a chef by trade - cooking is the other passion in my life besides writing and it's the one that pays my bills.  It's also the passion that has garnered me the most success in life.  Although I've been writing for almost 30 years now I haven't been very successful at selling any of my work.  But then again I haven't really put much effort into getting my writing out there to the people in control of publishing and disseminating literature to the masses.  I'd like a lot of people to read what I write.  I think I've written some good stories and I have even more rattling around in my head.   So here we go - a cooking competition memoir....



 

 

Three Hours Twenty Minutes

 

A Competition Memoir

 




Before the Bell: One Tough Little Bastard



“Alri’ gentleman…and lady, before we commence, I want to give you some advice. Some pointers if you will.”

 Captain John Alford (Ret.) of the British Royal Marines stood barely five feet tall, with a face framed by giant aviator glasses perched atop a razor thin nose which only enhanced a disturbingly large over bite. He spoke in a working class cockney accent straight out of Mary Poppins. His piercing blue eyes moved constantly, saw everything and commanded shame or obedience depending on what he said.

It was five a.m. and it was just the four of us.

 

 

Myself, my partner Ted, our apprentice, Mari, and our floor judge for the morning’s competition, John Alford, Master Chef and eater of lesser chefs. Word had spread that on the first day’s competition so many plates had gone to the tasting judges with cold food that by noon Chef Alford had gone on a 15 minute screaming tirade. He had caused so much commotion that the day’s culinary contest was briefly postponed while the chef regained his composure. For a lot of the spectators and the sponsors of the contest this was very disturbing. For most of the chefs competing however, it was like being at home. Kitchens across the country are full of though little bastards that brook no dissent, and go mad-bull crazy when things aren’t done right. Still, this familiarity with abusive, berserk behavior did nothing to lesson the fear induced by Chef Alford’s tantrum. Those of us who were slated to compete on the second day were secretly praying not to have any contact with the chef at all. So naturally, my luck being what it is, my team was met at our kitchen station by the Monster of Manchester himself. My partner Ted, a big Michigan bear of a guy, groaned like a 5 year old about to get a shot at the doctor’s. Whatever stomach contents I had left from the previous evening’s dinner tried to leave by the nearest orifice.

However, once the chef began talking, I started to feel better, I realized that he probably wasn’t going to kill any of us today and that, as he spoke, it turned out he was actually trying to help us. Mind you I was working on about three hours of sleep and Ted had had an hour, so we were too mentally fatigued to be scared for very long. We simply wanted the contest to start. Once we got to work, everything would be fine. Which is what Chef Alford tried to tell us.

“Lookit, I see everyone as starting out Gold medalists. Then I work down from there. Keep your stations clean, allow me to see some knife work – classic cuts an’ whatnot. Be methodical, keep an eye on the clock - the time will go fast! I’ll call out the time as we get close to your plating window. Remember, you have three hours to prepare and twenty minutes to plate. That’s twenty minutes for thirty plates. You got your soup, appetizer, salad and main entrée. Mind, that’s a more complex salad - a good opportunity to show of the knife skills. And dress the salad! You bloody Yanks are obsessed with dressing on the side. That is NOT the right way! Also lads and lass, primary thing here, your food MUST be hot. Piping hot. Flaming hot. Don’t plate your food on the stainless table – that sucks the heat away quicker than the North wind. Use a heat lamp if you have one. But for god sakes make it hot or by Satan I’ll box the lot a ya! Now…you have 30 minutes for setup then you will receive your boxes with the mystery proteins inside. Take what you want, fish or whatever, but be sure to put the unused portions back into the appropriate boxes. Any questions?”

I looked at Ted and shrugged. Ted asked some detail questions. I cringed inwardly, waiting for the volcano to erupt, and was pleased when it didn’t. Evidently 5 in the morning was too early to get honked of by questions. The chef shook our hands and waved us into our kitchen.

“Well off ya go! Good luck to ya!”

As Chef Alford stalked off in the implied threat sort of way that only a lifetime of military service can produce; the three of us released our collectively held breaths and began setting out our things.



The Bell Rings: What am I doing here and can I go home?


We are given two large boxes. One is marked seafood and one is marked meat. Our strategy is based upon the theory that the mystery box contents will be the same as they were on the first day. Namely…lamb saddle, slipper lobsters, quail, and some very nice trout. We had spent a better part of the evening before writing checklists and timetables based on the assumption that we will have these particular ingredients. We are greatly relieved when we open the first box and there is a big hunk of lamb and packages of beautiful little quail.

Ted quickly wrote down the menu while I sorted out what we want from the boxes. We handed the boxes and the menu off to Chef Alford’s apprentice judge. Today we would try to make the perfect version of this menu:


        Mixed greens

 

With

 

Roasted Shallot vinaigrette

 

And

 

Sesame glazed Quail Appetizer


 

Trout Chowder Encroute


 

Lamb and Slipper Lobster Duo

 

With

Rissole Potatoes

 

And

Truffle Braised Spinach with Shitake Mushrooms



We split the work so that I was doing the salad, the potatoes and the vegetable. I took hold of the quail also, even though time might be a problem with those. I’ll have to roast, chill, de-bone and artfully re-assemble in about 45 minutes.

Ted’s skills led us to choose him as the soup, sauce and meat guy. He’s quick and clean at butchering the meat down to the product we want and he had some good ideas for sauces. Since his work load is heavier than mine he will get to use Mari’s time more than I will.

I tape my checklist up on the window in front of my main station and as I do so I make the mistake of actually thinking about what I was about to do. This gave my brain just enough time to work up a minor panic attack and send it outward. I suddenly realize that I’m in a kitchen surrounded by glass walls in the middle of a huge arena and that I have two certified master chefs standing five feet away, clutching clipboards and…staring at me. Waiting for me to do something. Waiting for me to screw up. My hands begin to shake and waiver. I know that any second they could go out of control and begin to do horrible things on their own. My feet begin to shuffle in preparation for a bolt toward the nearest exit. My mouth goes instantly dry and I start having a coughing fit. Deep down I remember what I need to do. The one thing I can do to prevent wide spread, eye popping, gibbering panic. Mari walks by and I grab her arm. I lean in and croak, my voice all quivery like Katherine Hepburn’s.

“Mari, would you please hand me an onion? Quickly.”

She gives me a funny look and points.

“There’s one in your hand, chef.”

I look down and there’s an onion gripped in my hand so hard that the tendons are pushing out white against the skin. I look at it for a second then glance briefly out the window at the huge empty arena, soon to fill with thousands of people. I put the thing on a cutting board and sneak a peak at Chef Alford standing just on my right. He’s smiling at me and his laser beam blue eyes are piercing my ego like a butterfly pinned in his collection. I take up my 7 inch Global brand Santoku knife. It’s a lovely, light, well balanced knife with a razor edge. It has been with me for years and the second I pick it up I feel better. I begin to cut the onion in precise ¼ inch slices. I have no immediate use for the onion other than something to do while my nerves calm down. By the time I’m done I’m ready to move on. Nerves gone. I start prepping the quail for the oven. Twenty minutes has already gone by.


 

One Hour: Apprentices in Love


Each team competing is composed of two chefs and an apprentice. The apprentice must be a culinary student currently taking courses. They are there as helpers and aren’t allowed to do any cooking or assembly of dishes. They can fetch, sweep, organize, help plan and organize. This rule is pretty nebulous and the judges really don’t worry if an apprentice is in charge of blanching vegetables or making clarified butter or other simple cooking tasks. A lot of the time the judges let teams get away with letting apprentices do even more in the competition. So much so that the apprentice is a true third person actively involved in the work. The term “Two-Man Team” is just a label. So when you are putting together your team you are essentially composing a three man team for a two man competition. In our case, with Mari, we had an ace in the hole.

My partner Ted had had Mari working in his kitchen for over a year as a cook while she went to school. He was pretty pleased with himself when he told me that she was going to be able to help us with the competition. Most of the apprentices available in our area are young men making their way into the business while they go to school. Women and change-of-lifers are still a rarity at our local culinary school. What women there are in the program are mostly bunched into the pastry/baking end of the business. Our apprentice, at 20 years of age, is very determined to become an exec chef and to eventually become one of only a hand full of female certified master chefs. This determination is buried just below a very pretty exterior, swathed in a mater-of-fact attitude regarding the power of her beauty over men in this male-dominated business. Mari is tall, willowy, brunette and fashion model gorgeous with a real natural all-American look. She’s Gidget, Barbie and Maryann of “Gilligan’s Island” all rolled into one package. Ted and I are hoping her looks will cloud some of the judge’s minds long enough for a few sins to be overlooked during the course of the competition. I asked Mari if this mercenary use of her as an apprentice bothered her at all. She shook her head.

“Oh not at all. I get that crap all the time. The big lover chef hitting on me. I’ll get that nonsense my whole career and I intend to use it to my every advantage. You watch, I might get a few points for us just by smiling, giggling and bending over. But don’t worry – you want anything done – fast- I’m your girl..”

I am nonplussed. She looks like Bambi, but she’s Janet Reno. For a brief moment, when I first met her, I was in love. Then the feeling passed. Lucky for me.

I’m getting the quail prepped for service when Mari, who’s been helping Ted butcher lamb, glides by and tells me she has about ten free minutes to help me with something. She brings one of the judges with her. A young military guy who’s there as an apprentice himself. He’s an apprentice judge trying to make his bones so he can become a full fledged judge. This guy’s not a master, but he’s won gold medals in international competition so he knows what’s what. At least until Mari starts talking to him. I briefly show Mari how I’m disassembling the roasted quail then reassembling them into a more aesthetically pleasing shape.

I start scooping the potatoes and in the close quarters of the kitchen I end up between Mari and the judge. At first, the judge is watching my every move, but then as the conversation between Mari and the judge becomes more involved he puts down his clip board and moves over next to Mari and starts helping her tie the quail together. This is totally out of the box for a judge to do, and I’m delighted. Mari glances at me and winks. She actually leaves the judge working on the quail to go back and help Ted. Unbelievable. Finally, the guy comes out of his fog and looks at me. He points at the birds, all trussed and ready to go.

“There you go, chef! They look good! Good job1”

I give him a thumbs up and thank him. He shakes his head, picks up his clipboard and moves around to see what else he can help Mari with. Ted’s got a grin a mile wide as he walks by and slaps me a high five. Out of the corner of my eye Mari is bending over to gather a piping bag out of a toolbox on the floor. The judge is scribbling like mad on his clipboard with the eraser end of his pencil as his eyes skip merrily over Mari’s rear end. At this point, as I sort through my spuds, I realize that Mari is going to have a long and illustrious career. And that her road to success will be paved with the crushed egos of many a kitchen Casanova..


 

Two Hours: Time Like Water Through Your Fingers


When you first enter a competition like this you tell yourself that three hours is a huge amount of time to get what you need done. Then, once you’re into it, and small things start to go south, you quickly find out that three hours is basically nothing. I got to this point fairly early on; with about two hours to go I felt the cold fingers of panic begin to gently claw at my finely wrought plans.

I brought about the whole thing myself by ignoring one of the cardinal rules of competing – don’t change horses in mid-stream and don’t do something you aren’t quite sure of. Our mystery box had included some very nice whole trout which Ted had taken to use for the chowder. Ted had filleted out one fish and had set the rest aside on ice to come back to later. While I was carving potatoes for the starch I got this brilliant (I thought) idea to make a two-flavored fish mousseline to garnish the salad and quail with in sort of a surf and turf combo. Something of resonance from the soup and a precursor to the main. I thought that this would show a little more skill and it would also display some creativity to boot. Not to mention the beautiful presentation I could compose in order to really impress the judges. Of course, I was totally and hideously wrong on many levels.

I quickly consulted with Ted who raised his eyebrows, but went along and gave me the go ahead. Looking back, I should have realized that he was humoring me in order to get me out of his hair. He was hitting his own wall of pain at the time. I grabbed a new cutting board and got the fish off the ice. As I was setting up the food processor Mari slid by and asked what I was doing. When I told her she stared hard at me and informed me that I didn't know jack about making fish mousse. I told her she was mistaken and that I did too. I’d made it twice in the last year. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Alright, but you might have to kiss getting into the medal points good bye. But you know better about this than I do, chef. I’ll go get some more ice – you’re gonna wanna keep that stuff cold every step of the way.”

Did I mention that Mari has no problem telling you where she stands on an issue? She flounced away and I briefly reconsidered my plan, but I rejected the shadow of a doubt and forged ahead. Twenty minutes later as I was whirling the mousse together, Chef Alford and another floor judge came by and peered at the processor bowl and at the butchered fish on my board. My filleting was ragged, uneven; evidence of my haste and inexperience. The other judge watched me as I poured my mousse into molds. He leaned in and quietly spoke into my ear.

“At my restaurant I Miami we do this sort of force meat all the time. I’d use more egg white if I were you and it looks like it could use a few more runs through the tamis.” He stared steadily at me. “And I’d make that carcass there go away. You got a little oveer and hour before your window, chef.”

I automatically gave him a “Yes chef! Thank you chef!” at his retreating back as he moved on to the next kitchen. I looked at the clock. An hour! The mousse was going to take at least that long to cook and set up. I still had the veggies to do, the greens needed washing and trimming, the quail needed a little more attention, there was vinaigrette to make and mushrooms to prep. Not to mention the actual cooking of the starch and vegetables. I had used up about 45 minutes making the mousseline. I felt the weight of time pressing down on me. My head started to throb. I could feel stark raving panic begin to get serious in the pit of my stomach. I locked eyes with Mari who was helping Ted finish butchering his proteins. She shook her head slightly; no help there evidently. I was on my own.


Two and a Half Hours: The Fog


If you’ve ever (god forbid) been in any kind of serious accident like skiing off a mountain or skidding out of control in your car, you know what I mean when I say time dilation. In the midst of the sheer terror and surprise; you experience the events in slow motion and split seconds all at the same time. It’s a fascinating and yet sickening sensation. From the time I shoved the mousseline into the freezer to set it quickly , I began to spin around in that small kitchen box we were in. I was deeply aware of time fleeting, but at the same time the panic became so extreme that an eerie calm descend upon me. Even as I skittered about like water on a hot skillet I was profoundly at peace inside. A peace that I imagine prey feels just before a predator’s killing blow. A peace of the doomed.

I careened around in a fog, letting a good deal of my brain go off the rail, while there was still a small dinosaur part of my mind twanging away at the instinct parts and directing my hands and feet.

Roast the quail – chill along with the mousseline – wash hands – sanitizer – gloves- clean greens – spin dry – chop shallots – heat butter – drop pan – grab – burn – ignore pain – re-heat butter – cook shallots – check mousse - and on and on in a slow/fast time slip.

Every once in while Chef Alford would appear and ask me questions which I answered. Sometimes it was the crazed panicked me that answered and sometimes it was the calm, rational me that answered. Chef kept coming back and asking me questions, following me around. Looking back, I think he was fascinated by my apparently Bi-Polar condition. In the end, at our evaluation, he had a full legal sized piece of paper filled in on both sides with notes about just me.



Three Hours – The Window Opens



During the entire three hour session my partner Ted and I had only communicated in short staccato sentences in a language made up of kitchen patois, and a code born out of long familiarity with each other’s work habits. As Ted went by me on the way to the common kitchen he’d shoot me a few questions and keep going. Picking up my answers on his trip back.

“Quail alright? Got a problem? Need hands?” he’d say.

“Bird’s okay. That sauce fired? How’s lamb? I need Mari.”

Ted would keep going, giving me the Hawaiian “hang loose” hand signal. He nodded at Mari, who somehow knew that meant to come over and see what I needed done. We weren’t a chatty kitchen team. During plating we were nearly silent. We used hands, eyes and body language to communicate. I was as if we didn’t want to break our concentration by speaking.

When Chef Alford came by to tell us our plating window was opening we were already on the way with the salads. The mousseline was just done. I was unmolding, cutting and placing it as the servers went by on the way to the tasting judges. The mousseline turned out great (or so I thought), but it was out of place on the salad. Halfway through plating the salad I started cringing every time I put down a piece of the mousse. It was wrong, I was going to get nailed for it, and yet I had to keep going. Deer in the headlights doesn’t describe it. At least the deer had a brain. I had apparently lost mine somewhere along the way.

The salad gone, we began putting out the velvety, highly flavored chowder. The puff dough covering our crocks looked like the dried skin of some sort of anemic lizard. I sneaked a piece and to my horror found that it was raw inside. Or nearly so. Enough to warrant at least a ten minute tongue lashing from Chef Alford. As we placed the crocks onto the serving trays the look on Ted’s face was so full of shame and anger that I feared tears might soon follow.

“Wasted 45 minutes making that dough.” was all Ted said.

Finally we came to the main plate and even though we’d been plating for a little over ten minutes, it felt like hours. The lamb was perfectly pink and warm, the lobster was moist and strikingly colorful, the spinach and mushrooms were vibrant, deep and fragrant with the truffle jus I’d dressed it with. The potatoes were the sad, misfit child in this food family portrait. In the fog of panic and fear of the last thirty minutes I had crowded the potatoes in my cooking pan and as a result I’d poached, rather than seared and lightly braised. They were embarrassing shade of beige, uneven, lumpy, and slightly mushy. They didn’t deserve to be on the plate with the rest of the stellar components.

“Got impatient with those.” Was all I said.

I looked at Mari and held up my hand in an “L” for “Loser” sign up against my be-toqued forehead. She laughed. Then Ted laughed. We were done. We didn’t care. We’d done our best, and it was over.


Judgement – The Agony and the Ecstasy


“You look tired, my children!”, Chef Alford stood on the other side of the stainless table that had been our plating stage an hour before. After our last plate had gone out we quickly cleaned up. You are also judged and timed on clean up. We gave each other desultory high fives and then went our separate ways. We went out into the arena where a gigantic food show was going on; the competition was just one of the shows attractions. I wandered around for about an hour watching the crowds. The cheerful groups of culinary students, the gaggles of restaurant owners and cooks, the brokers, salesmen and corporate types, the school lunch ladies and the wide-eyed foodies. How happy and busy they all looked while I trudged around wallowing in misery and failure. My mind went over the three hours of cooking. Over and over. I dissected every move I’d made and found so much lacking that when it came time to report for our debrief/critique I couldn’t even look Ted and Mari in the eye. If I had looked I would have seen that they were avoiding my eyes as well. These was enough blame to go around. Chef Alford started with me. He pointed his ultra-sharp pencil at me and shook his head.
      “Most of all, my friend, you are too impatient. You get a little rattled. I could tell you knew what to do, but a lot of the time you just didn’t do it. You got distracted. Your concentration wasn’t up to snuff. You couldn’t seem to work and answer questions at the same time. Which must be a joy for those that work with you.”
Ted snorted and I heard Mari giggle. Chef Alford shot them a glare.

“Don’t you laugh at him. The same goes for all of you. No heroes here. Lemme ask you something, chef. Did you change your plan somewhere along the way? What was on your task list wasn’t what you ended up doing.”
I nodded and gave him my whole idea with the fish mousse and salad. He listened intently giving little nods now and then.

“Well, lad, that was a good idea. Showed a good bit of skill there. But it wasn’t the right thing for today. Never change your initial plan that radically. You had some hitches and I think it affected the rest of your work.”
He flipped over his notepad and made a mark on a chart.

“Lucky for you it turned out just this side of alright. You obviously didn’t know how to butcher a fish, your recipe for the mousseline was wrong, and the end product was a horrid mush that tasted like potting soil. Still, it was a good effort. Not a total cock up. Just remember not to do that sort of thing again. Now….shall we talk a little about forcemeat production?” And so it went. Chef Alford setting me straight on how to clean fish, make forcemeat, cook potatoes, keeping a station clean and even how to wash my hands. In between re-teaching me things I already knew, he made similar ego slapping shots at Ted and Mari. By the time he finished with us we were pretty sure that the day had been a complete wash, Except for the invaluable personal lecture from Chef Alford and the resulting notes I took.

            Afterwards, I went out to the table where our show plates sat amongst all of the other competitors. Our food looked pretty good, actually. Especially when compared to some of the others. Some of the plates of food looked absolutely horrible. Like the food had been dropped on them from a height. I could only imagine what kind of critique those folks had gotten from their floor judge. I stood there pondering those other team’s fates when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“Is that your team’s plates there?”

           I turned and came face to face with the stern, patrician face of John Messier, industry legend, restaurateur extraordinaire, one of the first certified master chefs and one of today’s tasting judges. He spoke quietly with a clipped Austrian accent, reminiscent of a villainous Gestapo agent from some old movie. I pointed in the direction of my creation.

“Yeah, that’s mine up there, chef. That salad and the quail plate.”

“Ah. I remember that one. You rushed it didn’t you? That mousseline was like eating sand. Zero flavor. You didn’t use the tail and cheeks did you? And that quail. Tasted slightly rancid. I believe the oil you used was bad. Didn’t you smell that? The texture on that was exquisite, though. Which made it more of a shame that you nearly ruined it. Let me ask you. Was this the best you could do today? I mean did you exhaust every resource? Give it your all?”

I wanted to crawl away undetected. Why was I being punished this way? I nodded my head.
“Ummm, yes chef. I did the best I could considering…” The chef rubbed his chin.

“Wow, that’s too bad. You know…I don’t think you did. There’s too much potential for greatness peaking through in you and your partner’s food here. I could tell. Everything’s in place. Look, here’s my card. The next time you do one of these and before you get into that kitchen box, give me a call. I can help you go over some things. I’ve done hundreds of these competitions. They are supposed to be fun. I didn’t see any fun there in your food. I didn’t feel it. You’ve got to be patient and pay attention to the details. And give it your all, but at the same time remember that in the big picture this doesn’t mean anything. So try to relax and have fun. Don’t worry so much. You’ll get there.”

My first thought was yeah, easy for you to say. Then I realized I was getting access to a great culinary mind and someone with real insight to this whole competition business. I shook his hand, thanking him.
“Thank you chef, we did try our best today, but its hard when you screw up and you’re only given three hours.”

He laughed.
“You say that like it’s an excuse. I know you didn’t mean that.”
I grinned sheepishly. We said our goodbyes. I felt a little better. Evidently I wasn’t a bad cook. I was still learning and still making mistakes. But they were good mistakes, the kind that are easy to learn from. Easy to fix.

We sat together, the three of us, at the awards ceremony. It seemed like everyone else there had that same humbled, shamed expression on their faces. That day, no one had scored enough points to reach gold medal level. There were three Silvers given out. And only two Bronze medals. One of those Bronzes went to us. I hugged Mari and shook Ted’s hand. He leaned close and spoke in my ear.

“Jesus! If what we did was bronze level work, how bad were the guys that didn’t medal?”

I shrugged, I didn’t want to think about it. We had survived. We had gained a little knowledge and had done what we thought was our best. And that best was worth Bronze. This time.

The End