Stop, Cook and Listen

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

Brent, too, was blown away by the dinner with Paul Bocuse. "Everything was done perfectly, the sauces matched, the way everything progressed from course to course. It's very inspiring to try to work toward that," he says.

Then he adds, "You think of things you would do differently. I mean, who am I to do that? But just for yourself..."

As the group prepared to leave the country, Dave managed to miss the train from Lyons to Paris. The other students surmise that he was simply too much of a Southern gentleman to push his way onto it.

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

Tanner turned 21 in France; he saw the Mediterranean for the first time that day.

November 17, the day of the gala. The students are focused and working hard, but they don't seem tense. They're at ease in the kitchen; after six months together, they understand each other's rhythms. Ethel, who with Tanner killed twenty lobsters that morning, talks about her brothers on the farm, who used to torture her by waving dead animals in her face. Cody works alone in the pastry section, his apron covered in chocolate. Elizabeth looks sadly at the butternut squash she's cut into tiny squares to garnish the soup. "They're not perfect," she says.

Don puts together his array of mignardises: miniature checkerboard cookies, coconut macaroons, chocolate-almond candies, lemon tartlets with raspberries, madeleines.

Chef Gallit is only five feet tall, but she's a tremendous presence in the kitchen, consulting at the stove or helping to chop, stir, arrange food on a plate, her movements swift and definite. She nibbles constantly -- raw dough, the edge of a tuile, some mascarpone filling -- with her expression inward and judicious as she tastes; if the food pleases her, she breaks into an infectious urchin grin. "I'm in a kitchen," she says at one point. "I'm happy."

She is also very visually oriented. A student comments that he's worrying about the taste and texture of a preparation, and Chef Gallit walks over and says simply, "What a beautiful color." And once, when the tops of Karen's rolls swell inexplicably, Chef Gallit exclaims, "Oh, wow. The rolls look like tulips."

The guests, each of whom has paid $85 for the dinner gala (tables seating ten go for $750), are beginning to arrive. The glasses have been polished, the dishes wiped. Ethel has floated candles in tall glass holders for the tables. The students have been coached on how to serve; there are diagrams taped to the kitchen walls, and they've done a practice run. Dave offers a group of guests a tray of amuses bouche. One of the women exclaims over the shrimp and asks what it's wrapped in. "Something like shredded wheat," he responds, and ambles back to the kitchen.

People settle at the tables, and the courses begin arriving. The bi-colored soup is served; there are exclamations of pleasure as people sip. For three days, Elizabeth and Chef Gallit have experimented with potato varieties; Gallit has also advised Elizabeth to use more stock and never bring the soup above a simmer. Now not a trace of pastiness mars the soup's silky texture. Brent's venison chop is tender, perfectly complemented by Dave's sausage-and-cornbread stuffing. The dish is garnished with a pressed celery leaf, shiny and thin as glass. Everyone at the table tries to figure out how this was done.

After each course, the students whisk away the plates and the cutlery. They pour wine. They keep the water glasses filled. By the time dessert is served, the guests are happy and expansive. Those at one table keep breaking into song.

The students rush in with their cones of Bavarian cream, which are beginning to melt and quiver on the plates. There are shouts of laughter at the singing table and loud calls for Viagra.

"We were back there, Cody and I and Chef Dan [Widmann], plating, and people came back and said, 'Everyone's laughing,'" Brent remembers later. "We felt pretty bad. But when we came out, every plate was cleared."

At the end of the meal, the students are introduced, their contributions identified. The guests stand up and applaud.

The students are taking their last set of tests over two days: At any given time, half of them are working on a written exam, half cooking. Each cook is given a bag of groceries and told to prepare a three-course meal in four hours. Since they've all been learning to temper chocolate, truffles are required for dessert.

The students begin working individually at half-hour intervals. As each student finishes, Chef Andy and Chef Gallit come in with Chef Dan to taste the finished effort -- silently forking up the appetizer, cutting into the meat, holding up a truffle to check its coating. They then retire for a brief discussion and return to render their verdict.

The students work with ferocious concentration. Elizabeth attempts an ambitious menu but is criticized for serving too large a piece of chicken and for generally underseasoning the food. Meg has created a fairly simple main course but executed it perfectly, napping her pork medallion in a rich, heavenly sauce. Dave is told his breaded and stuffed chicken breast tastes good, but he should have challenged himself more. Karen's hollandaise has broken.

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