Iron Chef on Slow-Mo

The day after Christmas, Chef Michael Harants invited me to watch a practice for an American Culinary Federation practical exam. There were two levels of certification being tested, Chef de Cuisine and Executive Chef.

My wife was out of town, I was on vacation and didn’t have dinner plans. Perfect. 

It was an encouraging afternoon for someone (like me) just entering culinary school. While the knife work was way better than mine, it wasn’t like watching Mario Batali slice veggies. All the prep went along at human speed, like Iron Chef in slow motion.

The finished dishes weren’t great, but … that’s why they call it practice.

Harants — Corporate Chef for U.S. Navy Family Support — is the only approved ACF examiner in the area, so his suggestion that some of the chefs might want to practice with his coaching wasn’t a hard sell.

The testing time was three hours.

The Chef de Cuisine candidate had to prepare chicken consommé, veloute sauce and espagnole sauce; prepare 2 portions of chicken for a main course, using at least 2 cuts of the bird, and prepare 2 portions of appetizer using whitefish and one of the seafood basket components — shrimp, lobster, crawfish and so on.

The Executive Chef candidates had to do a fish, salad and main course using ALL the ingredients in this market basket:

1 each 10 ounce Salmon filet
2 each 1.25 pound live Maine Lobster
2 each Whole chickens, 2.5 – 3.5 pounds each
2 ounces smoked bacon
1 pound fresh spinach
2 heads Boston lettuce
1 piece Belgian endive
1 pound Carrots
3 each Russet or Yukon potatoes
2 each Globe Artichokes
2 each Bartlett pears or Granny Smith apples
1 pint Grape Tomatoes

The meal had to demonstrate different cooking methods, different knife cuts for the vegetables, different types of sauces and include an emulsified vinaigrette.

About an hour into the practice, one of the exec chefs walked away. Too much on her mind that day. The other one did classical dishes all the way … all the way to presenting her incredibly smooth lobster mousseline in the empty shell.

The guy going for Chef de Cuisine went a little thin on his sauces, by Harants’ standards.

He also brought forth a nearly monochromatic appetizer, a huge shrimp-stuffed whitefish served on a white plate. For a main dish, there was a chicken breast accompanied by a pile of white rice and jullienne bell peppers. It was like eating at Appleby’s. Just boring.

Harants hauled everyone back into a conference room to pick apart the dishes and counsel the offending parties.

It wouldn’t have been to everyone’s taste, but I had a great time.

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