We enter the Paragon Culinary School dining room at 8:30 a.m., greeted by pristine white plates atop gold chargers, each place setting lovingly decorated with a pale pink napkin folded into a rose. A student of the school, here left nameless, is already 41/2 hours into her final exam.
Chef Victor Matthews, dean at Paragon, believes it's hard to teach traditional large-group classes how to cook properly. Thus, his program's final is a high-pressure practical test: three meals, three locations, over 24 hours. Paragon's Extreme Practical can feel more like a reality cooking show than a test. But it's hard to undervalue the ability to adapt and overcome.
Largely, breakfast pleases. Fresh granola with pecans prompts rave reviews from the judges, especially with fresh fruit in lavender syrup and student-made créme fraîche. Quiche with ham, chipotle, green peppers and green onions comes piping hot but not overdone. At least two burnt pancakes landed in the chafing tray, leaving a scorched taste in our mouths.
Lunch must be served al fresco, in the middle of busy Garden of the Gods. The student arrives a half-hour late, later blaming traffic. Her Peruvian tuna ceviche, though lovely in an ice bowl studded with limes and cilantro, has too much acid. Her chardonnay pairing loses nuance. The student later tells us that she lost the agave syrup that would have balanced the dish. Still, the crab Louis salad satisfies, and a key lime tart pleases, but for its burnt crust.
Dinner happens at a local restaurant, cooked in the kitchen. The student serves an excellent prickly pear margarita with fried plantains as hors d'oeuvres. All we lack is cocktail napkins for the tostones' oily mojo de ajo. A bowl of black beans goes from side to course when the student learns the hors d'oeuvre didn't count for the four-course minimum. The ropa vieja, a Cuban staple, is cooked well, but not exciting. Fresh, cheese-stuffed rolls and a light but satisfying coconut dessert regain our affection.
Most of the student's errors were small, but little things can have big consequences in the kitchen. And it's a very thin line between proficient and perfect.