Week 20 and my final Ashburton Chefs Academy blog. I’ve been pretty good at procrastinating rather than writing this final post! Once this is posted it dots the i’s, crosses the t’s and reaffirms that the experience really is finished. 100 days of the course done, 44 hours of assessment done – all with 14 strangers who turned into my closest friends.
The week started with results day, something I had been waiting for and dreading in equal measures. Mostly I wanted to know, but only if it was good news! As all of you who are friends with me on Facebook have seen, I passed my diploma. I’m happy to say I did better than just passed it. I was over the moon by what I saw when I was handed my results and I burst into tears the moment I left the room! Along with the wonderful surprise of my results Darrin also gave me some advice about where I could take them in my future, encouraging me to try out for a stage (internship) at some higher end kitchens. I was overwhelmed to have someone so experienced recommend that I pursue an avenue which is so challenging as the standards are so high and the conversation left me with lots to think about.
Monday afternoon and evening was spent celebrating results with friends, comparing our detailed feedback and basking in the glory of the fact that every single one of us passed. That in itself was a huge achievement and speaks volumes for our class – of how much we accomplished and pushed each other to achieve the best we could.
Tuesday and Wednesday we were back in whites for our long awaited Chocolate Masterclass. Colin is the chef who leads the patisserie students for their diploma, so until now we haven’t been taught by him and we were in for a treat! He started out with an introduction to chocolate; its origins, how it is manufactured, a bit of a taste test, and finally (and most importantly) the science of tempering chocolate. Then we moved into the kitchen to watch Colin demo the process, which he made look much easier than it is!
The first key part to tempering is to reach the set temperatures. For plain chocolate, heat it up to 45°, cool it down to 27° then heat it up to 32° (C). Sounds simple. It’s not. The other key point is to work the chocolate. The cooling process creates stable beta crystals, which then multiply on heating. Next key point, those crystals will be destroyed if the chocolate is heated above 33.4° and the chocolate becomes too hard to work with below 27°, therefore 32° is your magic number for workable chocolate!
For those of you not interested in the technicalities, just take the previous paragraph as proof that tempering chocolate is hard! It is also messy! The cooling down is done by pouring the chocolate onto the granite worktop, spreading it out, then scraping it back up and repeating the process until the chocolate thickens. The result is chocolate everywhere, some melted, some solidifying on all of your equipment – good thing that I was working with my one of my closest friends who is far more patient than I am! That afternoon it was our turn to have a go. Our first attempt didn’t work, probably because we didn’t cool the chocolate enough. You take a sample of the 32° chocolate on some acetate and place it in the fridge to set. If the chocolate goes shiny and brittle you’ve tempered it correctly. If it doesn’t it’s time to go back to a previous stage of tempering, which stage seemed to vary depending on the problem. I was very reliant on Colin to interpret as it was all beyond my experience!
Our second attempt did work, and we set about pouring our tempered chocolate into moulds to line them. This whole process was messier than I could have imagined – tipping a mould upside down to pour out the excess being the messiest part. I realise I’m emphasising the mess quite a lot, but we’ve been trained to work neat and tidy for 19 weeks and this was going against that grain! Despite fighting a battle against chocolate temperatures, keeping chocolate and water separate and generally fighting losing my patience we had a laugh and produced some beautiful and very successful chocolates, ready to be served at our graduation ceremony on Thursday.
We tackled something a little more challenging on Wednesday – creating a chocolate centrepiece. Colin had demonstrated creating something slightly abstract the previous day. He used balloons and bubble wrap amongst other bits to create a vase containing flowers, the whole thing being constructed using tempered chocolate as glue. We’d had the evening to plan our designs and a bit of time with Colin to help us work out how to construct them. Ideas have never been my strong suit and as Hubs had jokingly sent me a video of a cockatoo drinking from a chocolate fountain the day before (it is worth Googling!) that image had stuck in my head.
My plan was to create a four tier chocolate fountain and then model a little chocolate cockatoo at the base, drinking from it. It took me four attempts to temper my chocolate so my patience was being tested from the start! While I was busy raising and reducing the temperature of my chocolate, my friend opposite had piped almost every element of his. Seeing his semi-circle pattern piped onto a cocoa-butter transfer sheet I asked if he was doing a peacock. He said he wasn’t and that was my light bulb moment – screw my idea I was going to pretty much nick his techniques (ideas) and make them into a peacock! Colin decided this was more fitting as apparently I laugh like a peacock! Once my chocolate was finally tempered I piped as many tail designs onto different transfer sheets as I could, then I piped a load of body and head sections, and finally made a base to place it all on.
We all had to re-temper our chocolate after lunch in order to construct our centrepieces. I still didn’t really feel like I could tell if my swatch had worked or not – the mystifying tell-tale signs eluded me! Luckily Colin was on hand still and gave me the go ahead. Making up my construction on the fly (still copying my friend!) I used as many of the tails as I could to create a fan and stuck the best of the head pieces on the front. In the process I managed to drop one of the ‘tails’ despite Colin’s repeated helpful warnings of ‘steady… steady’! I was actually really pleased with the outcome even though not all of the pieces made it!
Everyone transferred their finished centrepieces into the dining room and we each voted for our favourite. The second to youngest chap in the class won with a lovely design of a yacht with chocolate curls as the sea. The centrepieces stayed out to be displayed to our friends and family at graduation the next day (if they didn’t get accidentally knocked over / eaten before then!).
Thursday came too quickly, the final morning in our kitchen. I call it our kitchen because when you’ve worked to keep it clean and organised for six months you do start to feel an ownership of it, fictional as that ownership is! Our last morning was spent creating the canapés for the evening graduation. Each pod of four were assigned a few canapés from our recipe list. Ours were Chicken Liver Parfait with Smoked Apple Purée, and a Beetroot and Goats Cheese Samosa. I started with the chicken livers while my partner started on the smoked apple purée. The whole morning flew by, it was amazing to see how happily we all went to task, following the recipes and helping each other out. It felt like we were a well functioning team fully in our comfort zone. We completed the prep for the canapés ready for the Chefs to assemble them that afternoon so that we could go home and get dressed for the evening.
My Mum came down from Surrey to join me for my graduation which was wonderful. We had a lovely afternoon catching up while drinking some Champagne she bought me to say congratulations. We joined my Land People (Lord and Lady!) who had invited us around for drinks before the four of us went to school for the ceremony. We enjoyed our canapés and more bubbles on arrival, showing off our chocolate centrepieces and all revelling in how glamorous (and very different) we looked out of our whites! The ceremony itself was lovely. Darrin and Dave introduced the school, the diploma and what we’ve covered in our time there. Then each of us were called up to receive our certificates, medals, and named chef jackets. I had been forewarned that my name was incorrectly spelt so a replacement was on its way for the following day (the joys of having a thirteen letter double-barrelled surname!). Following the ceremony it was our turn to take part. All week my closest friends had been writing a skit for us all to perform that evening – a homage to the school, the chefs and our time there over the last six months. Everyone played themselves ‘in class’ and a few people played the Chefs (with big name badges around our necks!). We were delighted by how much everyone threw themselves into it and how well it was received. There was a lot of laughter so we knew our jokes (and imitations) were taken as intended! The Chefs told us that no other class had done anything like that, and we were certainly leaving them with something to remember us by!
We finished the evening keeping the professional photographer busy asking for every combination of student and chef to be photographed multiple times! Posing with each other and the Chefs reminded me what a bond we’ve formed in such a short intense period. That evening we all headed into town for more celebratory drinks, some sensible with Mum in tow, some a little later and a little less sensible!
Our final morning was our real treat, we were taken to Michael Caines’ country house hotel Lympstone Manor for lunch. It opened earlier this year and has already been awarded its first Michelin Star. The setting was absolutely stunning and we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to show it off. We were greeted with glasses of bubbly and some stunning canapés. We were then shown around the kitchen, hotel rooms and the wine tasting room! The whole thing has been exquisitely designed and realised. Every last detail has been carefully considered down to each room having bespoke artwork to match its name, each after different birds of the estuary. We sat down for lunch, split into three large round tables in a private room overlooking the gardens and the sunset. Needless to say the food was amazing as were the matching wines. After the meal Michael Caines himself very kindly popped in to wish us all congratulations.
Given it was such a wonderful special occasion it was only fitting that on seeing Michael I immediately embarrassed myself! He appeared behind Chef Stuart who I was sat next to, and as I wasn’t expecting to look up and see Michael Caines I exclaimed ‘Oh hello!’ like I knew him…! In my defence I did recognise him, however my greeting made it sound a tad like I expected him to recognise me… needless to say he didn’t! Excuse me while I hang my head in shame on remembering this moment. Lets move on! Michael told us how creating Lympstone Manor was realising his dream and that he hoped we would be able to realise ours. He was excited to show us where they would be planting grape vines so that they can create their own wine in a few years. It was wonderful to have met him and hear how passionately he talks about the future and how much drive he has to carry on achieving more, even when he’s already accomplished so much.
We made our way back to our mini bus for our final trip back to school. It didn’t really hit me that I’d be saying goodbye to so many people the moment we got back. A few people were moving out of Ashburton the next morning so until we arrange a big reunion it really was goodbye. It won’t surprise you to hear that on that realisation I started crying and pretty much didn’t stop until I went to bed that night! A few of us hid out in the café in town for one last afternoon, clinging together to distract from the fact that it was all over.
I was especially sad to say goodbye to my closest friends as without them the last six months would have been a very different story, one with a lot less laughter and joy. Saying goodbye to the Chefs was sad as well, they’ve been such a massive influence on me, sharing their knowledge and passion. They truly make the whole experience special, with unique and inspirational training.
I moved out of my loft and back home that weekend. It’s incredible how much stuff you can accumulate over six months. I remember moving in feeling proud of how uncluttered my new living space was, it didn’t stay that way for long! It was equally tough moving all of that stuff back into a home which is already rather full! But it was lovely to finally be home, with Hubs and the cats, not facing a three and a half hour drive anywhere any time soon.
Since being at home I’ve been trying to find a balance between relaxing, being productive and planning ahead. I spent one day blitzing the lounge as the accumulation of stuff tipped me over the edge! More importantly I’ve been applying for stages at restaurants to gain more experience. I’ve had an odd feeling of being in limbo – the experience I’ve been dreaming of doing for five years is over and that chapter of my life is complete. The world is now my oyster, which seems appropriate because I didn’t touch an oyster at school so they are equally unknown to me! Jokes aside I’m in a very lucky position – looking for the next challenge which sets my heart on fire like Ashburton did, and hopefully finding my new career while I’m at it.