Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Judging the French Culinary Student Final - And the Verdict Is...

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As I mentioned earlier this week, I had quite the day yesterday judging the French Culinary student final.  Before I give you the inside scoop, I have to first and foremost remark about the amazing culinary prowess that surrounded me here. It was truly an honor and a humbling experience to be in the presence of New York's finest culinary stars.  Needless to say, the afternoon was a blast and also a great learning experience, as I soaked up interesting tid-bits, techniques and advice from these skilled professionals and at the same time, offering my perspective.  Here's a run down of what went on:

The Setting:
The student final was held in one of FCI's dining rooms, this one located on the 4th floor.  It was a rather spacious area, perfectly suited for this type of event.  I loved that it faced the expansive kitchen where the busy students were off doing their thing.

A row of long tables was set up simply with crisp, white tablecloths displaying badges with everyone's name and professional affiliation.  We were greeted with some sparkling water and champagne, both welcome and so refreshing to start our afternoon of eating and judging.

My Fellow Judges:
Now...the moment you've been waiting for.  Who were my fellow judges? Well, let me start off by saying that the first person I met when I got there was the lovely Carmen Gonzalez, chef and founder of Carmen Restaurant, recipient of Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence and many other accomplishments including being a recent contestant on Bravo's Top Chef Masters.

And here are some of my other fellow judges - all impressive in their own way.

Brad Farmerie
 - Executive Chef, Public/Double Crown
Matt Lambert - Sous Chef, Public/Double Crown
Francois Latapie - Chef/Restaurant Owner/Front of House, LYON Bouchon Moderne
Lauren Braun Costello - Chef/Author and owner of Gotham Caterers, Author, Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft and The Competent Cook: Essential Tools, Techniques and Recipes for the Modern At-Home Cook
Alexis Pisciotta
- Chef de Cuisine, Salumeria Rosi

Iacopo Falai - Chef/Owner, Falai
Howard Portnoy - Restaurant Reviewer, NY Examiner

The Judging Process:

The whole judging process was very interesting and quite involved.  We first received some background information from the chef instructors about the students' curriculum and the types of dishes they'd be preparing.  We received a print out with pictures and a list of components of every dish we'd be tasting.  There was a healthy mix of appetizers, entrees and some desserts too.  Each dish was complex in its own way and allowed the students to showcase various cooking, preparation and showmanship skills learned throughout their studies.

We received two scoring sheets - one included a number scale and the other was free form, where we could write our commentary that would later be presented personally to each student.  The components that each dish was judged on included: cleanliness of plate, presentation, plate temperature, primary cooking technique (i.e. protein such as fish or meat), secondary cooking technique (i.e. sauce), garnish (i.e. vegetables) and overall temperature of the dish.

The judging was challenging because you had to do everything very quickly and precisely, especially because in many cases, you were judging duplicates of the same dish that belonged to different students.  Twelve short minutes passed between each course, so by the end we really had to hustle.  Needless to say, I only had a couple of bites from each plate, tasting the essential elements that had to be judged - and in most cases, not reaching for seconds because the next dish was already on the table.

My fellow judge, Matt Lambert and I had a good time comparing dishes and exchanging our two cents about everything.  Matt is a talented Sous Chef at Double Crown and his culinary knowledge no doubt surpassed mine, but funnily enough we agreed on almost everything.

After we finished tasting everything, our score sheets were collected and we were left with only our comments to share with the students.  There were about 10 chairs placed in front of our table, in preparation for the students' critique.  It very much felt like an episode of Top Chef, which was so exciting--I can't believe I was the one actually behind the critic's table. 

The students were just lovely and received our criticism very well.  My fellow judge Francois prepped us a bit on how to approach the students, "make sure that you're positive and encouraging," he said. "Always apply your critique to real life and give them practical advice that they could use in a professional kitchen." And that he did!  I admired his knowledge and experience and filed each one of his comments to my mental food library.  Simply stated, this man knew his stuff!

Favorite Dishes:
Although we weren't able to take pictures of the food, I had a couple of clear favorites.  One of them was the Tuna Tartare with pickled daikon and smoked uni cream.  The tuna was perfectly fresh and sliced into appetizing little pieces that just melted in your mouth.  The overall sensation was fresh and zingy, a wonderful starter that certainly whet the appetite.

And the other two stand-outs were the desserts.  Having a huge sweet tooth, I wasn't suprised when I loved both dishes, a fresh strawberry tart with balsamic creme freche and a classic chocolate-orange parfait.  Both were expertly prepared and looked like pieces of art.  I actually thought they looked better than in the prep photo and was very impressed by the student's fine job.  The tart in particular had the most amazing, crunchy buttery crust with a touch of almond. Amazing! And the chocolate orange parfait was as smooth as butter with a delicious candied orange garnish. It was a pleasure to eat and since this was the last dish of the day, I did have seconds.

The overall experience was one that I will truly never forget. I felt (and continue to feel) extremely lucky to be a part of something so wonderful.  Kudos to all the hard-working students for completing their final.  I wish them many wonderful adventures ahead. Well done!

If you're interested in taking recreational classes at the Institute, I highly recommend it. I've taken a Parisian bread class last year and it was awesome - FCI is well known for their amazing breads.  Take advantage of that or their other great courses which are rich in variety and accommodate every skill level.

French Culinary Institute - 462 Broadway, New York NY 10013
6 Train to Spring Street

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