Becoming a French Chef in Quarantine



Hello from Paris, friends, where we’re well into month two of lockdown. I hope you’re all holding up as best you can. I’m up to my surgical mask in free time, so I figured why not sign up for a giant French culinary test? Yep, instead of escaping the world’s current terror by peacefully cooking away on my own terms, I’ve imposed on myself a year and a half of intense home training. That is, when I’m not trapped in my latest coping mechanism: lying in bed with The Winner Takes it All on repeat.  

The test I’m referring to is called the CAP Cuisine, which most people take after a couple years of full-time schooling and professional immersion. I, however, will be going in en candidat libre, which is to say, by the seat of my pants.

Exercise 1: gnocchis faits maison

CAP stands for Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle, an entry-level certification that applies to dozens of specialties in France, from carpentry to hairdressing. The common candidates are teens who decide around age 14 to pursue technical school rather than to go the university route. In the case of the cheffy ones, the CAP Cuisine or Pâtisserie, they spend two years studying and interning in professional kitchens until they take the exam around age 16, which then allows them to apprentice, move up the ranks, and one fine day run their own kitchens. So if you’ve wondered how French chefs get their reputation of culinary excellence, it’s because they start young, then go through decades of intense training–all of which I will be eschewing for lack of money and time. 

There are programs available for adults, but I don’t have 2 years to spare in a pricy culinary school on top of Parisian rent to pay, a work visa to maintain, and of course, whatever the future will look like with COVID-19. Still, there’s hope yet. A quick google search brought up a smattering of French blogs dedicated to the exam, and they proclaim that anybody, no matter their age or profession, can pass the CAP cuisine as long as they have enough DIY determination. I guess I’ll find out if that’s true. 

Can you tell I watched two whole YouTube videos on food photography?

Pre-lockdown, I got my hands on the Bible of the CAP cuisine: La Cuisine de Reference. It covers everything from washing your hands to butchering a sheep, complete with full-color images. I have been assured that dismantling Lamb Chop is unlikely to end up on the exam. On the other hand, chickens, fish, and rabbits are fair game. Pun intended. 

There’s also a chapter devoted to les abats, or offal. Go ahead, google it.

Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, or otherwise non-omnivorous aspiring chefs have no recourse beyond a polite word in the textbook’s introduction that communicates, essentially, to suck it up, buttercup. Vive la France.

I’m cooking through the 190 recipes at the end of the book, which employ the techniques that make up the bulk of the text. After dividing them out from now until the test day in June of 2021, that leaves me with 10-12 recipes to accomplish per month, leaving out a few that people online have said aren’t necessary to learn. I trust these people online. They seem very sure of themselves. 

Croissants aren't on the CAP cuisine, but I still spent two weeks figuring out how to make 'em.

The exam itself will consist of a couple written portions on culinary and business theory, a quick oral presentation, and a practical test. The practical test is the moment we’re all waiting for, wherein you apron up in a professional kitchen and crank out dishes under a time limit. It’s similar to the technical challenge on the Great British Bake-Off, only none of the pleasant camaraderie

Thanks to quarantine (a horrible thought), I’ve gotten a head start on about 20 recipes. It helps that I’ve had some experience in a pastry school and a part-time restaurant job, but I haven’t flexed those muscles in about four years. What I’ve learned so far is that my knives aren’t sharp enough, the French don’t know or learn spice, and wow that’s a lot of butter.

As I couldn’t find a single English-language account of the CAP cuisine while doing my research, I figured I might as well create one, which I’m inviting you to follow along. I’ll make my cooking schedule open for public perusal, with such sophisticated notes as, “bleeeehhhhh,” “kinda burnt, but tasty,” and “Work! On! Brunoise!”

You can expect videos on my Instagram and updates on my personal blog, too. Shut Up and Go already let me put a croissant-making demo up on their account, and I’ll do more if they’ll let me.

A highlight from the Instagram. They're not all winners.

It’s all essentially a Julie and Julia situation, except that my version ends with the judgement of French chefs instead of a lucrative book deal. I am putting myself through a year-and-a-half long migraine to earn a piece of paper that elevates me to the level of a teenage apprentice, and you get to see it all unravel! Whoopee!

Wish me luck, intact fingers, and an iron stomach, everybody.

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