Oops; I Dropped the Lemon Tart...
When life gives you lemons, make a lemon tart and try not to drop it on the floor during your final pastry exam.
After I saw and read about this dish that was a back-of-house disaster turned front-of-house legend by Italian chef Massimo Bottura, I couldn't help but replay my most disastrous day, ever, in a kitchen. Massimo Bottura is the chef patron of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-star restaurant which has been listed in the top 5 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards since 2010. Bottura recreated his famous Lemon Tart dessert when Kondo Takahiko, Osteria Francescana’s pastry chef, let go of one of the restaurant’s signature desserts at an inopportune moment. Rather than simply ditch the smashed tart, Takahiko and Bottura decided to remake it in a culinary tribute to the thing that defines great art in any sphere - imperfection.
Cordon Bleu exams were pretty daunting. Anything can happen in kitchens, all chefs have bad days, and when you're nervous or unconfident, there's a much higher chance of something going wrong; especially in pastry, where everything is very precise and can't always be fixed without starting over. At the end of our first term we had to face our very first practical exam for both cuisine and pastry. Studying for it involved a ridiculous amount of practice that made your friends, neighbors, and the homeless guy around the corner very, very happy.
The exam involved us quietly walking into the kitchen, going to our assigned station, turning over the paper that was sitting on the counter that revealed which dish we had been randomly selected to make. We were then given ingredients to the exact amount that we would be needing, so as to ensure that we only had one shot at getting all the components correct. The time frame was also just enough to complete all the components once, there was no margin for error. The chef that was invigilating was there to grade us on technique, time management, cleanliness and just about anything else you can think of. After the practical was over, a blind taste test was carried out to achieve a final grade including the taste of the item completed. Oh, and if you fail (which happened to approximately 10-15% of students every year), you have to re-do the term... And re-pay for it too. The exams got harder every term, the superior level pastry final was ridonculous!! A chocolate and sugar sculpture, moulded chocolate truffles with our own recipe for ganache, our own designed entremet and plated dessert with handmade garnish, checkerboard sable hollandais, and brioche a tete. 6 hours of hustlin'.
As I turned over my paper during my first exam, I was so relieved to see a lemon tart written on the flip side. I had practiced this several times, and more so than that, I've always loved this dessert, and that goes a long way in the kitchen. Everything was going better than i could have ever imagined - I was well ahead of time; my dough was well rested, lined perfectly on the tart mould and blind baking in the oven; my julienned lemon peel was being candied over the stove; the curd was already done and kept aside; ingredients for the italian meringue weighed out, and the sugar already in the pan ready to be cooked. I went over to the oven to remove the ceramic beads from my tart shell and egg wash the base for a perfect finish. I opened the door of the oven and it was the most beautiful tart shell I had ever made, it didn't shrink one little bit, rolled out evenly and golden brown along the edges. As I removed the (rimless) tray from the oven, and turned around to place it on the marble counter top. At some point in those 2 seconds, the tart shell went sliding off the tray, into the air and landed... you guessed it... on the floor. From the corner of my eye I saw our 'grumpy santa' chef (refer to blog post #1) dive as a reflex to try and save it, and at that very moment, our 'over-achieving-teenager-looking' chef opened the door to the kitchen and froze when he saw the scene.
Foodies, I swear to you, it was like something out of a movie, my heart literally sank to my stomach and for what felt like forever, all 12 of us in that kitchen were staring at that tart shell on the ground with our mouths hanging open. I tend to jump to worse case scenario in my head quite fast, I'm not the most optimistic person, I'm more an end-of-the-world person, and my brain was going at full speed! I had already planned out how to explain to my father that he would need to pay for an extra term of culinary school. People later told me that I looked like a ghost for those few minutes, completely pale (which isn't hard to do with my complexion to be honest) - I'm surprised I didn't burst out crying!
'Over-achieving-teenager' chef was the first to break the silence and recommended maybe getting the tart shell off the floor.... Good idea.
I was extremely lucky, pretty much as lucky as it gets. As I bent down to take a look at the damage done, the tart shell wasn't shattered, but broken into 4 different pieces, as I carefully lifted them onto the marble top, my head was spinning. My egg wash was sitting in a bowl on the counter and the chefs nudged me and gestured to the egg wash. I had not one clue as to what they were hinting at and I really didn't have the brain power to play charades. As he was walking out I heard him whisper behind me, "egg-wash the cracks". I quickly used my brush to do just that and piece the tart together and back in the oven preheated at 180 degrees C, to set the egg and kill whatever bacteria was on there!! Just FYI - if any of you happen to be in a similar situation, just remember one thing... Egg wash acts like glue!
It actually worked. At the end of the exam, my hands were shaking, but I managed to present a lemon tart in one piece. I was still wondering, however, whether it would be graded on taste by our 'maybe-ex-convict' chef during the blind taste test. Scared to ask the question after the practical was over, I knew not knowing for weeks would be even worse... So I asked.
"What he doesn't know won't hurt him", was the response I got.
I know i'll be the one who's story is told to other terrified culinary students before their first pasty exam, warning them to be careful when taking their work out of the oven or fridge and carrying it around the kitchen. On my graduation, as I was walking across the stage to receive my chefs' hat and diploma, I graciously shook all my wonderfully eccentric chefs' hands, and proudly posed for some pictures knowing I had come a long way in the span of a year, when my favorite 'maybe-ex-convict' chef whispered in my ear:
"Jeraldine. You will always be zee girl, who dropped her lemon tart..."
In that moment, I couldn't help but smile.
Thanks for reading foodies! Would love to know about all ya'lls unfortunate kitchen experiences! Drop in a comment and keep in touch xo