Baking Through the CIA: My First Skills Exam

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We’ve been warned how stressful The CIA can be, and after taking my first skills exam, I see exactly what they mean. My entire week was spent in nervous anticipation as I prepared for the most strenuous of my midterm tests.

For the exam, we were required to produce genoise sponge cake, buttermilk biscuits, pate a choux, and pastry cream. Though these were all things we’ve done multiple times before, the added pressure of time constraints as well as the final products being graded added immense pressure to what on paper, looked to be a fairly standard production. I admit to being a bit of a nervous wreck in the days leading up to the exam. Tuesday’s class was a dry run of the production, which saw a large portion of the students, including myself, fail to complete our tasks. Unlike the actual test day, we were assigned a specific order in which we were to complete each item. This had a huge impact on production speed, and in my opinion, is the reason for my inability to complete my work in a timely manner. Time management is a huge part of working in a kitchen, and this was a great lesson on how to prepare for the actual test day.

Everything fits together like puzzle pieces. Each product has steps in which you’re left room to multi-task. Finding success is about putting the pieces together in the right order. Biscuits need to go through two chilling phases before they are baked, meaning it is best to get them started near the beginning of production. Genoise sponge cake needs to stabilize in the mixer for at least 15 minutes after achieving maximum volume, which is the perfect time gap to knock out a batch of pastry cream. Pate a choux needs to rest until they develop a skin, which is a great time to bang out some dishes. This is the order I went with. Though there is some wiggle room, this is what I found to be the most efficient for me. Luckily, we were given time in advance to scale out ingredients, which was a huge help in getting everything done. We were given 3 hours in total to produce our four products and clean the kitchen. In addition to our productions, we were graded on professionalism and cleanliness. Coming up with a plan of attack in advance of the exam was vital to working smoothly and efficiently.

The test day was a day of focus and diligence. Every action taken in the kitchen was completed with extra emphasis and intent. It was almost as if you could see the little-animated sound bubbles from comic books with each slide of a tray into an oven or slamming of a refrigerator door. It was incredibly difficult, but we were all successful. After exhaling for what felt like the first time in a week, the class congregated in the student commons to blow off some steam with some student organization sponsored karaoke. We overcame a joint obstacle as a class, and it felt to me like one of the first times we have all truly bonded over something. This exam was one of the first of many serious trials I will have to undergo while at the CIA, and a true introduction to just how intense the school and the profession can be. It will only get harder from here, but I’m ready for it.

By Andrew Bergman

Andrew Bergman