IT SEEMED like 110 de- grees in the large room, but that was only one of the rea- sons we were sweating un- der our white bib aprons. The heat was on in more ways than one. It was final exam night. Six months of work, including three-hour classes every Tuesday night and enough homework to feed the neighborhood, had all come down to this:
Prepare a three-course dinner of tomato and onion tarts, poached chicken breasts with a caper sauce made from your own reduced chicken stock, and desserts of tiny rounds of pa te a choux with flavored whipped cream piped inside. We had three hours to cook it all, clean our stations and present the food to Francois Dionot, proprietor and chief instructor of L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.
But there was a problem.
The room was so hot from ovens and nerves that the cream, which had to be whipped by hand, kept curdling. Some had tried five times, but just as the cream would begin to stiffen it would suddenly "break" into a curdled, soupy mess. Even the professional chefs among the 18 students in our class were a little nervous at this point.
Dionot had to drop the whipped-cream requirement from the exam and told us to get on with our cooking, but not without first saying that the temperature of the room wasn't the only reason for our whipping problems. Vanilla and sugar can't be added until the cream has begun to thicken, he explained, and we should always use chilled bowls. Most of us hadn't done one or the other and this final lesson would remain fixed in all of our minds forever. We continued boning chickens, reducing stocks, carmelizing onions, checking to see that our tart shells weren't burning. And wiping our brows. Hardly a whisper could be heard in the room, and the tension was so tight that you could cut it with a cleaver.
As each person finished, Dionot and his assistant, Bill Grogan, inspected each dish, carefully grading the work on Dionot's three P's of cooking -- preparation, presentation and palate. They eyeballed the food from every angle, poked it and took a tiny bite. When finished, they would nod and move to the next student. "Thank you," said Dionot as he walked away, "enjoy your dinner."
What? Eat our final exams?
Well, some did, others didn't. Mine was great, I thought to myself on the last bite, though I had no idea what the instructors thought. Wine went down much more easily than food for many others, however. Once Dionot and Grogan had left the room to discuss the results in a private office, we consoled and complimented one another and spoke of our worst fears. The instructors promised to be back in 20 minutes with the results. We could wait if we wanted.
By July 10, the night of the final exam, we had become a family of cooks. Even if we still hadn't learned each other's last names, we knew each other's palates well -- who preferred which spices, who used the most salt and who objected to its very presence. We knew who made the prettiest designs with food and that most of us had never made pasta before. We liked kneading bread and squirmed when it came to cutting up live lobsters. But we didn't compete; we were working too hard.
There were 12 men and six women in the class. Most were in their early thirties. Three were professional chefs, one was a private party manager and several were engineers. A nurse, a couple looking for a new hobby, an accountant and a food writer rounded out the class. We had one purpose in mind for our $1,200 investment: to improve our cooking skills and become more creative in the kitchen, either our own or someone else's.
Some had their tuition paid for by their employers, most had paid out of their own pockets, others received loans or tuition credits earned by assisting in other classes at the school. Although the chefs wanted the diploma for their re'sume's, everyone admitted the 18- by 10-inch scrolls would look great framed on their kitchen walls.
It had been a long, tough haul with the benefits far outweighing the few relatively minor catastrophes (a couple of burns, one cut finger, a fallen marble pastry board on an ankle and many new callouses from learning how to properly hold a chef's knife). The sequence of classes was logical, starting with knife sharpening and handling, vegetable carving and the proper way to poach an egg. By the end of six months we were spinning sugar in the air, puffing pastry, boning poultry, butchering sides of beef and putting butter cream frostings on individual genoise. We were exhausted.
There were nights in the beginning when the class moved so fast that some thought we'd never make it. A few grumbled out loud, worried that we were missing techniques or some important cooking term because there was too much to do and learn each night. Dionot would demonstrate at the beginning of each class, then we would duplicate his efforts at our own cooking stations. Few recipes were handed out.
"It was frustrating, I just didn't think it should be," said Barbara Elfman, an operating room nurse at Children's Hospital. She had enrolled for the sole purpose of cooking better at home for friends and family. And, while she said she was "thrilled" at what she had learned in hindsight, there were times when she considered not taking the final exam. There were no accolades for average work. "Francois doesn't mince words and praise came rarely," she said. "Sometimes his criticisms were a little hard to take. Cooking was something friends and family were telling me I was great at and here was this guy telling me maybe I'm not too good."
But for others, however, he wasn't tough enough. Bill Risso, an electronics computer engineer at the National Institutes of Health, who worked his way through college in restaurant kitchens, said he was used to having chefs throw things at him for his mistakes. "I would have preferred that he was tougher," Risso said, "but he certainly improved my cooking. There are so few times that you pay money and get what you pay for. He fulfilled all my expectations."
"The entire concept is based on how I learned when I went to school at Etole Hoteliere De Lusane in Switzerland," Dionot said with a heavy French accent. It is based on subject rather than recipe and one lesson builds upon another. "We teach the foundations of cooking." For example, he starts with a session on stocks, then moves into soups, then into sauces. His own teachers were tough, he said, and from the school of "first you yell, then you work. But I didn't mind. It forced me to work harder. I may have pushed you right at the beginning and you may have found that confusing, but I did that on purpose, hoping you would learn the fundamentals quicker. It worked."
It was difficult to imagine devoting two weeks to "The Egg," until we did. We made souffle's, omelets, crepes, meringues, pastry cream and hollandaise. Then there was a warning to stay away from eggs for a few weeks once we were finished. "They won't hurt you, unless you eat too many," Dionot said. We followed eggs with four weeks on fish, a week on stocks and soups, three weeks on vegetables, four weeks on meat, four weeks on bread and pasta and the last four weeks on desserts and pastries. We realized afterward that we had been making sauces all along.
When it was over, we had gotten what we came for. Suddenly we no longer relied on cookbooks to make a meal and realized that we could look in the refrigerator and put together a wonderful meal just by using ingredients on hand.
"Part of going to cooking school is gaining self-confidence," said Pam Banks, a chef at the Takoma Cafe, a health food restaurant in Takoma Park, Md. She had moved from Santa Monica, Calif., where she was working as a cook in a health food deli, specifically to attend the school. French techniques are applicable to any cuisine, she said. While she doesn't use Dionot's information about meat preparation, what she learned about chicken, fish and eggs is applicable every day.
Michael Williams, an Alexandria chef and restaurant manager, said his six months at the academy reinforced his apprenticeships under different chefs. What he had learned during the last five years was indeed the correct way of doing things. He's gained the confidence to start two catering businesses: "Michael's Just Desserts" and "Michael's Rent-A-Chef," where he'll come to your house and prepare a menu, serve the food and clean up for groups of four to 40. He'll use his profits to start his own restaurant someday.
All agreed our kitchen practices have changed. Now, we save our onion skins and carrot peels in plastic bags in the refrigerator for stocks. We have egg whites frozen in our freezers for souffle's, angel food cakes and other rising creations. We're chopping onions by hand, rather than in the cuisinart.
"I'm reading recipes in segments," said Bill Taylor, a government marketing manager with Digital Equipment Corp., who hopes to cook on his own charter sailboat in the Caribbean someday. "I look at souffle's and say there's a be'chamel sauce. I'm keeping heavy cream in the refrigerator. I cook for dates. It's amazing how a fresh mayonnaise with basil just blows people away," he said. "Francois was very correct in his theories on the three P's of cooking."
It was the three P's on which we would make our grade.
Suddenly our instructors were back in the room. Their faces were long and straight. Ours were apprehensive. You could hear a pin drop. Dionot told us what had happened that night had never happened in the history of the cooking school, founded in 1976. All had passed.
Though there wasn't a dish that didn't get some privately confided criticism from Dionot -- a too-thick crust or an undercooked pastry, everyone had gotten the message.
Here are some recipes a few of the cooking school graduates have created since that night: MICHAEL WILLIAMS' ROAST DUCK BREAST EN CROUTE AUX EPINARDS (4 servings) 1 whole duck, cut up Salt and pepper, to taste 1 teaspoon powdered cloves 1 orange, thinly sliced
For the madiera sauce: 1 carrot, cut in half 1 stalk celery, cut in half 1 onion, quartered 1 leek, cleaned and cut in half Bouquet garni: 3 parsley stems, 1 sprig fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf and 2 whole cloves, tied in cheesecloth 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/4 cup madiera wine
For the croute: 2 pounds fresh spinach, cleaned and stems removed 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced 1 teaspoon nutmeg 2 tablespoons butter Salt and pepper 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese 2 sheets puff pastry 1/2 pound fresh pate' de fois gras, cut in four slices 2 egg yolks, beaten with 2 teaspoons water
For serving: 1 small bunch fresh watercress
Cut up duck. Split and bone breast. Reserve carcass for stock. Sandwich duck breasts, fat side out. Place breasts, thighs and legs on a rack in a shallow baking pan. Season with salt, pepper and powdered cloves. Cover with orange slices. Roast at 450 degrees until breast meat is rare, about 30 minutes. Cool. Remove fat and skin from breasts. Halve each breast through the thickness.
Place carcass in stock pot with carrot, celery, onion and leek. Barely cover with water. Add bouquet garni. Simmer 45 minutes.
Meanwhile lightly saute' spinach and garlic in butter, just until wilted (2 to 3 minutes). Season with grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add parmesan and remove from heat. When cool, squeeze excess liquid from spinach.
To assemble, quarter each sheet of puff pastry. Place 1/4 cup spinach mixture in center of 4 pastry squares, top each with 1/4 duck breast. Place a piece of pa te' on top of each duck breast. Top each with 1/4 cup spinach mixture. Brush edges of pastry with egg wash. Top each with remaining pastry. Press edges firmly to seal. Score with fork. Arrange a flower design on top with leftover scraps of puff pastry. Glaze top of entire crou te with remaining egg wash. Refrigerate 20 minutes.
Strain stock through fine sieve or cheesecloth and skim off the fat. Reduce to 2 cups. Thicken with cornstarch softened with 1/4 cup water. Add madiera wine and allow to simmer until ready to use.
Put legs, thighs and puff pastry in 400-degree oven for 20 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.
Slice duck crou tes into four sections across the width. Cover bottom of plate with sauce. Stagger duck crou teson sauce exposing colors and layers. Serve a thigh or leg to each side. Garnish with fresh watercress. BARBARA ELFMAN'S ZUCCHINI SAUCE AND SCALLOPS FOR FETTUCINE (4 servings) 3 medium zucchini, peeled and cut in thin slices 1/2 cup chicken broth 1 shallot, finely chopped 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 2 tablespoons butter About 1/2 cup whipping cream 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh oregano 1 tablespoon parsley 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh basil Salt and pepper to taste 1 pound scallops 1 fresh linguine
Cook zucchini in broth with shallots and garlic until fork tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Cool. Pure'e with just enough broth to thin the mixture out, about 1/4 cup. Return to pan and reheat. Swirl in the butter. Add cream and herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Add scallops and poach 2 to 3 minutes, just until tender. Boil linguine 1 minute, drain (do not rinse) and toss with sauce. BILL TAYLOR'S ORANGE TART (6 to 8 servings)
For the pate brisee: 2 cups flour 1 stick cold butter 1 teaspoon salt About 1/4 cup ice water
For the creme patissere: 2 cups milk 1 1/2 teaspoons grand marnier or cointreau 4 egg yolks 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup flour
For finishing: 3 to 4 navel oranges, peeled 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate bits 1 tablespoon creme de cacao 3/4 cup whipping cream
Put flour out on a board. Make a well. Take cold butter and break up in center of well. Mix flour and butter pieces together. Create well again. Add salt dissolved in water into the center. Bring everything together so it is all wet. Add additional ice water a teaspoon at a time if mixture is too dry. Do not knead and work the dough. Clean the board. If sticky add a little more flour. If warm wrap and refrigerate in plastic wrap 15 to 20 minutes while making the creme patissere.
To make the creme patissere, heat the milk with liqueur. In a large bowl whisk egg yolks with sugar until mixture becomes a smooth, thick, pale yellow paste. (If too difficult add a touch of the warm milk). Add flour, mix well. Add milk a little at a time and whisk to prevent lumps from forming. Pour mixture in clean pan and return to medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until mixture is very thick and it comes to a boil. Continue whisking briskly, cooking 30 seconds more to cook the flour. Remove from heat and whisk 30 seconds more, to prevent pastry cream from sticking to pan and burning. Cool quickly by spreading on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with sugar and cover with waxed paper to prevent a coating from forming.
Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and roll out to fit a 9 or 10-inch tart pan. Carefully lift and line tart pan. Line the inside with waxed paper and weights and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes, until light brown. Set aside to cool.
Melt the chocolate bits in the top of a double boiler. Add cre me de cacao and 1/4 cup heavy cream (just enough cream to make a thin syrup). Whip remaining cream to stiff peaks and fold in 2 to 3 tablespoons chocolate syrup (or more, according to taste).
Peel oranges and cut into 1/4-inch rounds. Fill cooked pastry with pastry cream. Working from the outside in, layer orange rounds in a circle on top of cream, covering all of the cream. Put chocolate whipped cream in a pastry bag and pipe decoratively on top of oranges. (Once or twice around the periphery and a big dollop in the center is quite nice.) Keep chilled until serving time.