After three intensive weeks at the CFA in Val de Reuil, learning the ins and outs of what it takes to work in a professional kitchen, I got to put my newly-acquired skills into action last week during an internship at the Ô Cameleon restaurant in Fontaine Bellenger, France.
I’d always wanted to eat at this restaurant but had never actually managed to, so I was ecstatic when they accepted my first one-week internship. All the desserts are home-made and they work exclusively with fresh produce. The meat is purchased from a certified vendor and is of high quality, and the fish arrives whole and fresh several times a week. The menu is simple and mostly classic, letting the quality ingredients shine through and putting the accent on flavor, not fancy, complicated names or plating. The dishes were easy to execute and even easier to enjoy as the dining room packed with customers could surely attest to. Highlights include the baked, breaded camembert with caramelized apples, a salad with smoked duck, gizzards and foie gras, salmon tartar with dill, tomato tatin tarts, delicious ratatouille with fennel, stuffed salmon, simply grilled steaks, scorpion fish filets, deconstructed lemon tarts, rum Babas, brioche and crème brûlée French toast and pear tatin tarts.
I was greeted on my first day with a smile and a “bise” (kiss on the cheek) by the chef, Pierre, and his apprentice, Antoni (also studying at the CFA). After getting changed, I got acquainted with the kitchen and was put to work immediately, peeling and dicing apples for the baked camembert appetizer and the apple desserts. Reggae music filled the kitchen with its mellow, laid-back vibes and the team followed suit. We chatted and laughed and shared experiences while working to get everything ready for the lunch crowd. I was comfortable from the get-go, and the team was great about answering my million questions and keeping me busy.
A couple of hours later, the boss, Hélène, and the lone waiter, Romain, showed up and we had a nice, quiet lunch together before starting the lunch service. Hélène, whose father owns the restaurant, has been running it for three years now, and doing a great job of it. She was all smiles and yet had an eye on everything, making sure that things would run smoothly that afternoon. Once our thirty minute break was over, it was back in the kitchen to finish our “mise en place” (making sure everything we need for service is ready in the work station fridge, and on the counter) and to await the first customers.
I spent the first couple of days with Pierre, who handles all of the main dishes (meat, fish and sides). Pierre is a well-oiled machine, and while he didn’t really need me there, he was very nice about letting me help him anyway. I let him plate the dishes and was in charge helping him keep track of the orders and decorating the plated dishes with parsley, tomatoes, chives and lemon slices. He took the time to teach me about cooking times and how he handles them for multiple tables. I learned how to properly cook fish filets without any fat and how to tell if poultry or beef was cooked by just touching it. Pierre gave me lots of handy hints all week long and was clearly very happy to be sharing his professional experience, which made my week that much better.
The rest of the week was spent making whatever we were out of, including brioche, chocolate lava cakes, lemon curd, shortbread crumble, salmon tartar (more on this later!), pear tarte tatin, breaded camemberts, ratatouille, fries and mashed potatoes, and serving hungry customers. I spent the latter half of the week in the “garde manger” (where the appetizers and desserts are made and plated) with Antoni, drooling over the desserts and getting very good with circle molds and plating salmon and tomato tartar. By the end of the week I was able to handle the appetizers pretty much on my own and let Antoni take care of the desserts. The team work was excellent and I’m glad to say that I have no major incidents to report. The entire week was hard and exciting and tiring and laid back and fun all at the same time. It was a great experience. A big thank you to the team at Ô Cameleon for an amazing week!