Professional Pastry Arts: The Final Exam
After six months of learning recipes and techniques, in addition to partaking in various tastings of coffee, tea, cheese and wine in the Professional Pastry Arts program, the final exam was upon us. To be honest, I was excited about it. As a career changer, I’d already been out in the real world; it can be overrated. I was excited because this was an opportunity to apply what I had learned in the program. It was go time.
In the pastry arts program, four and a half days are devoted to the final exam. By noon on the fifth day, our items are to be displayed for judging by local, esteemed pastry chefs. Day one was devoted to our written exam and to the construction of our showpiece. The showpiece served two purposes. The first was to display our desserts. We were each required to make a petit fours, chocolate, viennoiserie and a seasonal tart. The second was to showcase a theme, which was the International Culinary Center’s 30th anniversary. Our showpieces could be constructed from pastillage, chocolate, poured sugar, pulled sugar, and other sugar mediums we had learned in the program. Due to the humidity, the majority of us opted to use pastillage to avoid any issues with warping or collapsing showpieces.
Our Chef-Instructor, Chef Tom Jones, told us on Day 1 there is always friction. I thought he was referring to tiffs in the classroom due to heightened stress. Instead, he meant circumstances beyond our control would pop up and we would need to deal with them. He was right… Friction visited us on day two when I realized the oranges for my orange truffles were playing hide and seek. It was chocolate day, and consequently, we referred to Day 2 as “The Day Chocolate Hates Us.” Although our classroom was well air-conditioned, some of us had difficulty tempering chocolate. The longer it took to temper chocolate, the more time it took away from doing other tasks.
The rest of the week was devoted to creating the other food items – the tarts, petits fours and viennoiserie. Friction popped in at times and threw things off a bit, requiring some of us to remake certain recipes and revise our showpieces. Through it all, we plowed forward. As recipes came together, we slowly felt more confident about our progress. We learned how to work around the inevitable friction and not get overwhelmed by it. Overall, we laughed instead of cried, and managed to deliver our products when the clock struck 12:00 pm on Friday.
In the midst of Finals Week, I couldn’t help but think back to my first month in school. While working on my croquembouche in Level 1, I burned myself four times on the caramel. Burns are an occupational hazard, but they, coupled with my disappointment at the finished product, left me feeling frustrated. I expressed my doubts about my abilities to Chef Christopher Ciresi, my Level 1 chef-Instructor. He didn’t buy it. Chef Christopher simply said the pastry arts program is a learning process. Even though I was frustrated that day, he said I was on track and I would improve.
Chef was right. During the week of finals, I noticed my progress. I’m not an expert pastry chef, but I feel faster, more organized and better able to multi-task. My work is nowhere near the level of my chef-instructors, but due to their instruction and feedback, I hope I will eventually get there.
At noon on judgment day, two revered pastry chefs evaluated our work anonymously, focusing on flavors, techniques, and aesthetics. We all received constructive comments regarding what went well and what could be improved. Their feedback, along with six months of intensive training at ICC, can only help prepare us for our future careers as pastry chefs.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The final exam didn’t kill us…but it did make us stronger. Our diplomas are proof of that.
This blog post was originally published by the International Culinary Center (ICC), founded as The French Culinary Institute (FCI). In 2020, ICE and ICC came together on one strong and dynamic national platform at ICE's campuses in New York City and Los Angeles. Explore your culinary education where the legacy lives on.