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Professional mockery

I recently completed a City & Guilds evening course in professional cookery at a London college. It was the first time I had been in education since leaving school halfway through my A-levels in 1987. I was a little nervous but terribly excited, craving to know all there was about chopping carrots professionally, boning chickens, making stocks, wielding a big knife-just as the professionals did.

But a few weeks into the course I became frustrated. Our teacher would tell us to do something or ask for something to be completed for the following week, and yet when these things weren't done it did not matter. If something else in the rest of your life got in the way, college could easily be sacrificed. Due to pressures of work I missed four consecutive weeks-only to return, anxious that I wouldn't be able to catch up in time for my exams, to be informed that I hadn't missed anything.

All I wanted was to learn real skills and real techniques, but the lack of criticism made this very difficult. I needed to know if my soup was pallid or my roux tasteless, and if so what to do about it. This happened once, during a lesson with a stand-in teacher. I had made what I believed to be a perfect roux- good texture and sheen-but as our supply chef stuck his finger in and tasted it he cried, too loudly for my liking, 'that's disgusting'. My heart sank. I went bright pink. But I wanted to know why it was so terrible, and he explained. 'Simple, no seasoning.' He made me correct my error, pronounced a very good roux and I had learned just why salt and pepper are added to food and the consequences of not doing so. But this was the only time in a year's course.

Close to the summer's exams, I enquired what the pass mark was, and was informed that all the results would be collated and a pass mark would be set dependent on the overall standard that year. So there wasn't even an objective standard of skill I had to reach-I just had to hope that I was as good as or better than the average student. I was later informed that this is a quite normal practice, and our tutor told us that City & Guilds were revising their grading system: no longer pass, fail, credit or distinction, just pass or fail. Without exception, the aspirations of everybody in my class were to aim for a credit at least and possibly a distinction. Now we would only pass or fail. No concept of excelling could exist.

I can now cut carrots in a variety of pretty shapes, with some speed, but I still can't bone a chicken (meat was too expensive to practice on). I have a nice set of chef's whites and a set of good knives. So what?

Justine Brian

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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