My final exam at Le Cordon Bleu
After getting the chef’s permission to leave the exam room, I gave a little wave and made for the door, looking back every few steps to savour my last time in the pastry kitchen at Le Cordon Bleu. The chefs moved in quickly to critique my sugar piece as soon as I said goodbye, and I couldn’t help but stop at the door to see what they were saying. One of them looked up and waved me away. With that, I turned the door handle and headed downstairs to the locker room.
Alone in the locker room, I was surprised by the emotion I felt. I didn’t see it coming, but there it was – forlorn fondness for the school where I have spent the last six months of my life. This was the source of my stress about the pastries I made, the exams I took, the chefs I met. It was also a place where I made new friends and learned new things. I had expected to be completely joyful to be able to put all of the experience under my belt and call myself a pastry chef, but I guess sentimentality muddles things up a bit. Le Cordon Bleu has been my focus, my escape from reality, and I’ve used it to shield my mind from thinking too far ahead. What is going to be my life beyond Paris? As crazy as my days here have been, here it was, staring me in the face in the locker room – what’s your next move, mango?
With three sugar sculptures completed, I will soon be able to wear the funky tall hat and call myself a pastry chef. My final exam at Le Cordon Bleu went fairly well, and I felt confident about what I was doing. Yet I was definitely the most nervous I have ever been during an exam as I worked on making sugar flowers and leaves. At one point as I shaped the petal around my calla lily, I felt the two chefs’ eyes on me, curiously trying to figure out what I was doing. I had already completed more than enough roses – five instead of three “required” roses – and the lilies were a bit of a personal invention as I got comfortable with the sugar work. My hands shook as I wrapped the petal delicately between my gloved hands (didn’t help that gloves are too big for me). The classroom assistant came by and snapped at me in Mandarin – “stop shaking so much!” I couldn’t help it! The pressure was mounting since the end was so near, and I was getting even shakier.
Halfway through the final exam
The main supervising chef was my favourite chef at school – the younger one who can be condescending and slightly evil, but also has been a great teacher of theory. Throughout the exam he was quiet but nice to me, answering my occasional questions and providing neutral commentary on my work. However, he has the habit of staring intently at each student’s progress while making notes, so I was doubly nervous when I was trying to glue all the sugar pieces together under his gaze. There must’ve been something in the air that day; the sugar was much crisper and drier, therefore much more prone to cracks. As I stuck my wreath on the supporting bases, I held it in place gently, yet it still cracked. This was the first time my poured sugar had ever cracked, and I eyed it warily before deciding that it couldn’t hurt the rest of the sculpture if I just continued. Next came the roses. After sticking on my third rose, with lots of leaves around the flowers, all three roses came crashing off of the wreath. Good thing I was skeptical of the sugar already, so my hand was in place to catch it neatly without suffering too much damage. After some reconsideration, I decided to put the lump of three flowers at the bottom so as not to chance the weight falling again. From there, I added my last two roses on top, mixed in the calla lilies, and threw in leaves wherever I found space. During this assembly, I lost a lot more leaves than usual, again due to the dry crackly sugar. My nerves were about to be shot as my leaves snapped one by one, and I had to steady myself against the marble counter for a minute to practise my breathing before continuing.
A closer look at the “flowers”
Luckily it wasn’t just me. All around me, I could hear sugar pieces crashing off of the main piece, snapping merrily while my classmates strung together profanities. Something definitely was in the air during this last exam at Le Cordon Bleu, and it wasn’t going well for any of us. Across from me, a girl had lost her rose and ribbons due to a extraordinary face-plant performed by her rose at the top of her piece. Next to me, my friend went through most of her decoration pieces, snapping one after the other.
Finally I finished my piece. As I held the last flower in place while the sugar dried, I noticed a slight wobble. Catastrophe! The whole wreath had come loose from the supports!!! If given an encouraging roll, my whole wreath would’ve rolled off the table. I was at a loss for what to do. After a quick internal debate, I confessed this little mishap to the chef. Out of character, he was very sympathetic and examined it while I sputtered that this kind of crazy assembly accident had never happened to me. He looked up at me with a big smile and said he liked my piece, and just to leave it like that. He’d be careful with it. Then he went off to fetch me my number for the judges. Phew.
So there it was. After three practice classes lasting 5.5 hours each, I had made my final piece for grading at Le Cordon Bleu, and I was done!
My first two tries before the final exam
It had been a gruelling day of sugar work starting at 8:30am. As more of my classmates joined me in the locker room, the room started to fill up with nervous energy and excitement about finishing our course together. There was also a slight bittersweetness lingering about my friends and me. No more working side-by-side in the kitchens, whisking and stressing together. This really was the end, and it came up so fast! I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling slightly nostalgic already. Despite all our grievances about whisking egg whites and cream by hand, and pulling 165-degree sugar into flowers petals, I can honestly say that I am really glad I took the time to do this.
My friends and I snapped a picture of us outside the Cordon Bleu building on the street to mark our last time ever walking out of a practical class. Next up – a trip to Italy before receiving my new Pastry Chef diploma (much more fun than one that says Bachelor of Arts / Honours Business Administration blah blah blah)!!