Sunday, September 5, 2010

One Last Dance

*Fun Fact: this was an english paper.

“This is it,” the words echoed throughout the room “I can’t believe it’s finally over.”
There were twelve of us. Sitting in twelve cotton cushioned chairs at tables arranged to look like a horseshoe, we sat in quiet anticipation. Eyes darted erratically from person to person in order to preserve the image of the others in our minds. Even in the uniformity of our white jackets and chessboard pants, we each played a unique role in the melodramatic culinary comedy which conspired over the year. We were a family, and this was our home. Room 222, 216 and the numberless kitchen were the set of our growth, self discovery, strife, and friendship. We had entered knowing that after tonight we would never be a family again. It would never be home ever again either; visitation was ok, but we would never be welcomed as we were before. Each of us knew that this would be our last hurrah.
Everybody jostled in their seats in the restless half hour before the examination began. We conversed, cajoled, and encouraged each other while we waited for the chef to enter and give us a final pep talk. The day as a whole was bittersweet, because it had been an incredibly stressful year even though we were excited to leave at the same time. After the residential sassy Latin girl reviewed the game plan with everyone, the chef entered. He walked in hastily, and began listing off guidelines and advice for the day ahead of us.
“Remember 110 percent mise en place, and the clock is the boss!” the chef quipped “Ok, let’s go!”
With that, the clock struck one and everyone collected their things and darted to the kitchen. We all breathed the thick (almost metallic) air as we burst through the door one by one. This was the last time the long metal tables, the dim lights, the sinks, and all the equipment would be ours. It felt as though we had taken a person who recently passed for granted, and then rose from the dead, like a phoenix, for a final chance at redemption. Each of us went to our respective stations and evaluated what needed to be done, put on our hats and aprons, and made sure all the equipment we were to use was available. We unpacked our knives, measuring cups, and other tools, and got promptly to work. Like a storm, 12 individuals crowded the dry storeroom and walk in refrigerators grabbing for ingredients and tools. When everything was all set up the day truly began.
There were three of us on pastry. Meghan, a thin brunette girl with enough boy trouble to make Juliet jealous, Tina, a young woman who shouts when she speaks and is a concern for cooking time, and I formed the baking trinity. The tasks given to the pastry team were to bake naan flatbread, cheddar cornmeal scones, and a chocolate torte with a cappuccino mousse filling. Each of us had our respective jobs that day: Meghan was to make the cake, cut it, and ganache it, Tina was to make naan flatbread and whipped cream, and I was to make the cappuccino mousse (which filled the layers of the torte) and the scones. I quickly put the chocolate and butter in a bowl over a bowl filled with urn (from a container just below boiling point) water to melt them. As that conspired I separated my eggs, weighed out my sugar, and created the coffee syrup that will act as the flavoring agent. When the chocolate was nearly melted I whipped the egg yolks, cream, and egg whites and folded it into the chocolate. After I had made two batches and placed them into hotel pans (a metallic, flat bottomed pan that comes in various depths and areas), I let them chill in one of the walk in fridges. It was around three when I finished that task so I knew I had to quickly begin work on the scones. I combined the flour, eggs, cornmeal, seasonings, and cheeses into a large yellow glob. I kneaded and rolled them carefully onto a floured table and cut out the shape, and baked them.
When the hour turned 5 it was time to breathe. We cleaned up any outrageous messes that were created over the past four hours, and checked to make sure everything was where it needed to be. Unfortunately, the breather was short for Meghan and I because we had to begin assembling the torte. The plan was for me to be the runner, and I would go between the freezer and dairy walk in grabbing cakes and taking them on round trips. She would fill a pastry bag with moose and spread them between layers and the system worked out rather well. However, around halfway through the cake filling Meghan came upon a discovery that could have changed how the rest of the day conspired.
“Corey,” Meghan said as she piped a layer of the cappuccino cream on a layer of cake “I don’t know if we have enough mousse.”
“What?” I said in a daze “what are we supposed to do?”
Everything seemed to stop for a moment. I stared at her, breathing heavily, trying to imagine some way to rectify the situation. If we ran out of mousse, it meant we may not have had enough dessert to serve to our friends and families sitting in the dining room.
“I don’t know,” Meghan stopped piping to wipe her hand on a bowl to release any mousse on her hand “maybe we have to make more.”
This made me nervous. There were only about two hours until we had to plate and serve the dessert. The difficulty in the situation was that mousse takes about four hours to set. There was a chance that if we placed it in the freezer, it would be fine. However, that ran a different series of complications. I realized in that moment that I had to start making a batch of the fluffy chocolate confection, and then hope for the best.
“Shit,” I whispered under my breath “do you think we have enough time?”
“Maybe,” Meghan spoke “make a single batch instead of a double. It might have enough time to set.”
“Alright, I’ll get on it.” With that said I darted into the store-room to make sure we had enough chocolate chopped to make even a single batch. I quickly grabbed whatever chocolate we had and dumped it into the dish that helps balance the scale. By some marvelous twist of fate we had exactly (to the ounce) what we needed and I placed it into a separate metal bowl and I began melting it without the butter. I speedily gathered all the necessary ingredients, but made sure to hesitate on separating the eggs so as not to over mise en place. I ran back to the dairy walk in before beginning.
“How are we doing?” I asked Meghan.
“With what?” She paused in a bewilderment birthed only from intense focus. She then released a high pitched squeal like she had done every time she heard something shocking or remembered something important “Oh, the mousse. How many servings do we need?”
“We should be safe with seventy five,” I calculated “will we at least make that?”
“Maybe,” Meghan continued to mousse “check how many cakes we have now, and then multiply it by 15.”
I heeded her advice and did as much. At the time we had four cakes done and she was at work on a fifth. We were told to prepare 7 cakes to be sure there was enough in case any were flubbed or something of that nature. I returned to the dairy cooler.
“Can you get 3 more cakes with the mousse we have?” I asked with a tinge of hope in my voice.
“Um,” She looked at our current mousse stock “I think so.”
“Ok,” I sighed heavily “good, I’m going to keep the ingredients just in case but I don’t think we’ll need them.”
After that stint of tension Meghan finished piping, and I continued my duties as runner. Once all the cakes were in the freezer Meghan made a quick ganache and I went to help other stations throughout the night. Around seven thirty everyone sat down for dinner and discussed the pros and cons of each dish sent out into the dining room. Both breads (the scones and the naan flat bread which Tina baked) were highly praised. Once the clock reached eight, we all stopped. It was time to plate the dessert. I quickly ran to grab a pair of vinyl gloves so as not to leave a fingerprint in the delicate ganache which covered each slice of the cake log. Everyone on pastry (and a few others from the kitchen) began to assemble the dish. First, a small pool of raspberry sauce (which was made at an earlier date) was placed at the ten o’clock position on the plate. Next, three medium sized raspberries were placed within the almost gelatinous pool of sauce. I was assigned the next task of placing each cake slice on the plate. After Meghan cut five or so slices, I would take a tray and gently place the slices upon it. I would then quickly and carefully lay each slice of cake on the plate so it did not come in contact with the sweet blood red pond already waiting on the plate. After said process was completed, a girl began the task of adding whipped cream to each dessert. On each slice, there would be five piped puffs placed in such a way as to make the cloudy substance look as if it were dripping off of the cake. During this process we each changed our now filthy chef coats to a fresher whiter one. I took over the whipped cream piping at the end so the other girl could change her coat.
When the final dish was plated, we each grabbed two desserts. As a class we entered the dining room and presented our plates to two guests of our choosing. I chose my parents for dealing with me over the course of the year, paying for the tuition, and raising me in general. We then stood by our guest’s tables and waited until all of the remaining desserts were served. After the guests were all served, the chef instructor introduced us one by one. Each of the students (myself included) thanked the chef instructors, our families, and our comrades. We talked about our future goals, how the experienced changed us, and the joy and sadness of disbanding our dysfunctional family at the night’s end. The guests joined in applause, and soon after the formality ended. We conversed with our respective guests, showed them around the kitchen, and took a magazine’s worth of photos. One by one we all returned to the kitchen to clean up any remaining mess and gather our belongings. One of our class mates (almost ceremoniously) shut off the lights of the line.
Earlier in the day we were instructed to go to the classroom for a final meeting. We filtered in sporadically; all the while we joked and reminisced about the year that had passed before our eyes. Once we were all settled in a seat or atop a table, our chef instructor and the residential pastry chef entered. Each offered our congratulations and a few words of wisdom. The two which stuck with me the most were ‘don’t ever tell yourself you can’t do something, because each of you has the potential for greatness’ and ‘don’t ever lower your standards’. Though a bit trite, the two chefs gave incredibly true advice.
It was the last moment we were a family. One by one we filtered out of the room (after saying one final goodbye to the chefs) and journeyed to our respective homes. Because I don’t drive, I had to call my parents and wait for a ride. I waited outside of the building on a small picnic table which sat under a tree. While waiting I watch the branches shift in the light summer breeze, gazed upon the blazing stars, and began to reflect upon the year that had passed. The year, especially the dinner service that just ended, showed me that I really could do anything I am determined to do. Before this year, I had never been in a really high pressure situation. Even though I did have some instances where I became beyond stressed (even at one point passing out), I felt that with a little struggling I could really get anything accomplished.
I felt and welcomed the breeze. It had been a long, hot night in the kitchen, and the waft of brisk air that could only come from a summer night was surreal and marvelous. I sat at the table, watching and waving as a few of the stragglers left. Down on the road, I then saw my mother pull up in her car. I was relieved to see it, but also sad that everything would truly end in moments. I got in the car, said hi to my mother, and buckled my seatbelt. I made one last glance towards my ‘home’. Something rang in my head as she began to drive away. It gave me a quick smile, and I let out a sigh. I would have to agree with Dorothy: “There’s no place like home.”

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