I got the results. Hindsight tells me it was probably foolish to try and jump-start a business, finish a renovation, and raise a three year old boy while cramming non-stop for this thing, but I did it. I came this close to burnout. I took the French national qualifying pastry exam, that which certifies me as a professional pâtissière, a total of about 11 hours of various tests in different test centers that included a 7 hour practical exam in a test center kitchen I had never seen. I had prepped intensively for months with Claire as my guide. Searching for my name in the list of new French pâtissiers for the year 2012, I felt like a kid on a rollercoaster.
I looked at the word by my name: "ADMIS." I had been admitted into the brotherhood of French pastry. I found myself in tears for a second, then picked up the phone and called her.
"I have something to tell you" I said after the beep, trying to keep the tone of my voice neutral. When she called me back a few minutes later, she was already hooting when I picked up the phone. That's the way she is. She blindsides you with sharp reprimands without hesitation to correct improper technique, and screams with joyous abandon when the occasion calls for it. The project she took on in preparing me for this exam was an intense one, and it wasn't just being nice, or a good friend, or anything like that, it was living up to and following through on a plan neither of us realized was going to take on the amplitude it did. There were many mornings when I felt like telling her I just couldn't do it, that my shoulder hurt, that I was losing steam. I never let on how close I was to giving up, nor my innate discomfort at the exactitude of things, smoothing the tops, even layers, straight lines, precision, symmetry and repetition. I just got up early, pushed these feelings aside, and mopped the kitchen floor. In the midst of renovation chaos, there we were incorporating butter, piping things in prescribed shapes and forms, and fiddling with the ovens with stern looks on our faces. She confided that some days she felt discouraged too.
Prior to the exam, with the base techniques down, I duly crammed for the written tests. I then took a few days to relax, like dough, to be ready with a clear mind to allow everything I had learned to come to the top just when I needed it. It had to have a chance to settle.
My main concern on the day of the big "épreuve technique", the actual baking part of the qualification, was whether I was going to be able to get up at such an ungodly hour. Doubts about whether I would be able to execute the actual pastry had gone away when I finished the little notebook we were to carry to the exam, the one with lists of the ingredients and ratios for everything I could possibly be called upon to prepare. A feeling of peace had miraculously settled over me when I had finished writing them out in my block letter print.
A half-hour before I was supposed to get up, I was already in the shower, feeling a little bit like it was opening night, or the day of the big match. I only got scared once, and that was while we were stuck in traffic on the way there. But I just reached down to that still pool of grace I had found while baking with Claire and dwelled there for a while. It was like a calm blue sliding door that shut out the fear. The precision eventually saved me. The goblin that had pierced his burning finger into my soft spot that morning gave up and took off, never to return.
I finished the 7 hour exam with 5 minutes to spare, time I took to straighten my work station and wash the last dish. I went to the room where we had displayed our pastry in professional rows. Eclairs, choquettes, tartes, brioche in many shapes and forms, and my beloved charlotte, the entremet I had come to love along the way.
We scrubbed the kitchen like urchins at Gormenghast to give ourselves a sense of closure and each unceremoniously drifted from the test site. The jury had stopped scrutinizing us, and were now hovering over our presentations with their clip-boards. They didn't even say goodbye, they just began to ignore us and we gathered it was time to leave. I swung by for one last look and a kindly janitorial man dressed in white was transferring our pastries, each with a slight thud, into big flat boxes on carts, loading them in by type, all the brioche in one box, the charlottes in another and so on, all mixed. Who knows where it would all go. I kindly asked if I could take a picture and he responded with a smile that photos were strictly forbidden, so I turned to leave.
I didn't even bother turning on the lights in the changing room when I took off my whites. My legs felt like stone weights, I could barely lift my arms, my face was slick with sweat, I had stringy hair and a dry mouth. I went to the ladies room and brought double handfuls of ice cold water to my face, not caring if it splashed on my street clothes. I treaded slowly to the car, where he carted me home, the baby watching me thoughtfully from his seat in the back. "Maman made gateaux" he said. That's right, baby.
When I got the results, I initially planned to take Claire to a big expensive restaurant but then thought why pay the price of a new mixer when we can do it right our own way? We went our favorite plain little cafe, the place we went when we were first planning the project. I asked the waiter if he might find us a bottle of Champagne. He scrounged one up and the clients stared as he ceremoniously poured the off-menu wine into flutes and placed the bottle into silver bucket of ice on the table. We ordered salads and lived the moment, sun streaming through the window. It was a very nice thing, raising our cold glasses of Champagne that day. We sipped on the wine throughout the meal and congratulated ourselves for coming through this. I couldn't finish my dessert. I looked at Claire, radiant, passionate, and happy. She is an amazing woman who is destined for great things. She has no idea how much it means to me that she stuck with me to see it through.