Some people believe that Julia Child dropped a whole chicken on a floor while filming The French Chef. In truth, she only dropped some potatoes she was trying to flip in a pan. But how I wish it were true. Then, I wouldn't feel so bad about the duck.
Everything is going well with Canette Rotie Aux Navets, roast duckling with turnips. Aiming below the knee joint, with a whack the webbed feet come off in one swift blow. Chef Bouveret whistles as he walks around the room and collects them in a large stainless steel bowl to toss in the bin; the sight looks like a host of Daffy Ducks were bumped off and stored, feet side up. I pick off the excess feathers, cut out the wishbone and truss it up into a neat package. Then I follow Le Cordon Bleu's precise roasting instructions.
La cannette goes on its side in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Then the duckling is turned to the other side for 10 minutes. Adding mirepoix, it is turned on its back for 15 minutes to finish. I'm dubious about the short cooking time until I see the duckling, brown and tender, its skin just ever so taut. I rest the pan on the open oven door as I insert my roasting fork into the cavity to turn it over for the last minutes of cooking.
Then my wrist hits the edge of the hot pan. My duck flies from the roasting fork into the air and drops onto the floor. It keeps rolling, like a succulent little football, to the edge of Anna-Clare's stove.
Now there is one thing that's true about Julia Child. She said that you should never confess to mistakes that were not witnessed by others.
"Remember, you're alone in the kitchen," she would say. "You must stand by your convictions and just pretend that was the way it was supposed to turn out."
Of course, here I am not alone. There are nine other students, plus the nosy Algerian dishwasher in the kitchen restocking pans. Mercifully, Chef Bouveret is out of the room. Anna-Clare eyes the duck with a look of horror for a good reason. The sous-sol sent up only five ducks today. We're sharing this one.
I put a finger to my lips to Anna-Clare and the dishwasher. Without a word, I scoop up the hot duck with my side towel and toss it into the pan, shove it in the oven and slam the door. I stand up, and turn to bump into L.P. standing in front of me. Her face says it all. She doesn't approve, and I sense a lecture. But then, Chef Bouveret returns to the room, whistling and triumphant with finding the turnips missing from the class basket.
"Look, look," he says, holding up the bowl.
I proceed with my recipe and plate as usual.
By now, whispered word has spread in the kitchen of the dropped duck. Pele the dishwasher peeks around the corner. Will I let the chef taste the contaminated duck?
Chef tries the sauce. "Good consistency," he says, "but it needs more salt." My vegetable cuts earn a "bien." He cuts into a tender turnip. His hand, clutching a small plastic spoon, hovers above the duck breast meat, sliced thin and fanned out on the plate. Instead of taking a bite, he directs my attention to the coloring of the meat.
"Look, look, ici. Pas assez cuit," Chef says. "It needed two more minutes of cooking on one side." But otherwise, it's "bon travail, nice work, Meeze Fleen."
In the locker room, Anna-Clare and I debate the duck. Researchers at the University of Illinois say the so-called "Five-Second Rule" isn't a myth. They say when you drop food on the floor, it's still safe to eat if you pick it up within five seconds. Surely, our duck wasn't on the floor that long.
Still, when I take my half home, I tell Mike, "Just don't eat the skin." He asks why. "I'll tell you later."
Such intrigue over a duck is nothing. We are learning that it's best to keep the chefs happy, even if it requires the occasional bit of clandestine work.
The following day, we are to saute three pieces of beef to specific doneness. We are instructed to make one bleu (bloody), rare (a little less bloody) and what the French call a point (sort of medium rare.) The chefs have taught us a trick to determining the doneness of meat using our hands. It goes like this: Relaxing the hand, hold thumb to forefinger, as if making the O.K. symbol, and touch the soft pad under the thumb with your other forefinger. That's bleu. Touch the thumb to the middle finger, the bump gets a bit taut. That's the way that rare meat feels. The thumb to ring finger equals medium rare.
The thumb to pinky? That's well done, or "Americain," as one chef says.
At the other end of the table,there's some shuffling when Chef Bertrand leaves the room. Ramona has overcooked all her steaks and utterly destroyed her bearnaise sauce. Students quickly converge to assemble an adequate plate, chipping in a piece of meat, some sauce and some warm potatoes Pont Neuf, which are essentially large French fries. Chef returns, looks over her plate, deems the sauce too salty and leaves. A minute later, he returns, tastes the same sauce presented by L.P., and declares it perfect. C'est la vie.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE SHARPER YOUR KNIFE, THE LESS YOU CRY by Kathleen Flinn. Copyright © Kathleen Flinn, 2007