Stop, Cook and Listen

Six months and $20,000 later, student chefs prepare the meal of a lifetime.

The students stand around the steel tables of the Cooking School of the Rockies' professional kitchen. Before them are rows of plates containing the preliminary versions of dishes that will be served at the school's biannual gala -- designed as both a fundraiser for Boulder's Community Food Share and a test of the students' knowledge and skill.

They begin the discussion with the amuses bouche -- little delicacies to be passed among the forty or so guests before dinner begins. The students have prepared shrimp in a shredded phyllo dough called kataifi, and strips of polenta sandwiched with mascarpone and bound with prosciutto. Eventually they will also make thin, crisp yam, beet and potato gaufrettes, each carrying a rosette of salmon gravlax crowned by crème fraîche and a dot of caviar -- but the salmon is still curing.

"The marinade you used for the shrimp is discoloring the kataifi," says Chef Andy Floyd, one of the teachers. "Maybe there shouldn't be a marinade."

Jay Bevenour
The meal world: Elizabeth keeps things cooking.
John Johnston
The meal world: Elizabeth keeps things cooking.

"Or a citrus-pepper white marinade," suggests the second teacher, Chef Gallit Sammon.

Chef Andy nods. "We could also skewer them. It'd be a little shrimp Popsicle."

"A shrimpsicle," says one of the students.

They turn their attention to the polenta. The strips could be thinner, they agree, and firmer. They also plan to adjust the taste. "We're going to use one-third chicken stock, one-third water and one-third milk for the polenta next time," says Meg Albers, one of the students who worked on this dish. "These are too chickeny."

For the appetizer, there's a choice of apricot-risotto-filled shepherd's purses or lobster ravioli. Chef Andy asks which the students prefer, given what will be served before the appetizer course and what's coming after. The students are unanimous on the lobster. Then come the questions. How should the ravioli filling be prepared: lobster mixed with ricotta, or lobster mousseline? Should they serve one large ravioli or two smaller ones? Can they garnish each dish with a lobster claw? That's possible, Chef Andy replies; it would only take twenty lobsters. "The claws would have to be put on a sheet pan and brushed with olive oil, maybe a white truffle oil," he adds.

"I'd like to see this served in a bowl, and cutting down the size of the ravioli," says Chef Gallit. "With yellow-and-red-tomato brunoise and a beautiful clear broth on the side. Three different textures. Different flavors. Nice and light."

Then comes the soup course. This is the responsibility of one of the program's most dedicated and meticulous student cooks, Elizabeth Perrault. She has prepared two soups: a butternut squash and a potato-leek. They will be poured into the bowl side by side, so that guests receive bi-colored soup. Both soups must be of similar thickness for this to work.

"I carried one all the way through the other room and it held up," says fellow student Don Bartlett.

Elizabeth laughs. She's been having problems with her potato-leek soup, which she thinks is too dense and clogs the mouth. "That's because one of the soup's paste," she says. "We have some serious work to do on it."

And again the questions. How green should the soup be? Somewhere along the spectrum of the leek, says Don -- whitish-green to deep green. Is the gold-orange squash soup too close in color to the red-pepper sauce they'll be serving with tuna for the fish course? And how should the soup be garnished?

"Is there anything you can use that's representative of the soup?" asks Chef Andy.

They decide on a fine julienne of squash that's been immersed briefly in boiling salted water and shocked in ice water, with a frizzle of deep-fried leeks for the center. Chef Gallit promises to show Elizabeth a way of frying the leek strips that leaves them bright green instead of brown.

As for the fish course, the tuna is cut too large. The pecans in the pecan-almond crust should be more finely ground. There should be less red-pepper sauce on the plate.

And so on through seven courses that include venison chops with red cabbage and bread-and-sausage stuffing, salad with pear slivers and Roquefort croutons, an elaborate dessert, and mignardises -- a cluster of little sweets to go with coffee at the end of the meal. Some kind of bread -- from bread sticks through cheese-filled parmentiers to milk and whole-wheat rolls -- will accompany each course. Champagne will be served at the beginning of the evening and a different wine paired with every course.

There's a great deal of discussion about the dessert -- a cone of cinnamon-flavored Bavarian cream coated with chocolate. Cody Schultz and Brent Whitson, the students in charge of dessert, have come up with several presentations. They all start with crème anglaise and squiggles of chocolate sauce on the plate, along with deep-pink candy swirls and tuiles -- thin, crisp cookies -- in circles and squares. The students begin playing, leaning a tuile against one cone, hanging a second from the point of another. One of the tuiles shatters.

"You guys are big on the cone?" asks Chef Andy.

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