The Last Page: Duck and Cover

An awkward case of the Cordon blues

Some people insist that Julia Child dropped an entire chicken on the floor while filming her TV series, The French Chef. In truth, she dropped only some potatoes she was trying to flip in a pan. But I wish it were true; I wouldn't feel so bad about the duck.

It is my fifth week at France's elite culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. Everything is going well with my latest assignment: canette rôtie aux navets, roast duckling with turnips. Aiming below the knee joint, I whack the webbed feet off in one swift blow. Chef Bouveret whistles as he walks around the room and collects the feet in a large stainless-steel bowl. I pick off the excess feathers, cut out the wishbone and truss what remains into a neat package. Then, I follow Le Cordon Bleu's precise roasting instructions. I'm dubious about the short cooking time until—after only 35 minutes—I see the brown and tender duckling, its skin just ever so taut. I rest the pan on the open oven door as I insert my roasting fork into it to turn it over for the last minutes of cooking.

Then, my wrist hits the edge of the pan.

My duck flies from the roasting fork into the air and drops onto the floor. It keeps rolling, like a succulent little football, to the edge of my classmate Anna-Clare's stove.

Now, there is one thing that's true about Julia Child: she said you should never confess to mistakes not witnessed by others.

"Remember, you're alone in the kitchen," she would say. "You must stand by your convictions and just pretend that was the way it was supposed to turn out."

But I am not alone. There are nine other students, plus the nosy Algerian dishwasher in the kitchen, restocking pans. Mercifully, Chef Bouveret is out of the room. Anna-Clare eyes the duck with a look of horror—for a good reason. The sous-sol (storage room manager) sent up only five ducks today. We're sharing this one.

I put a finger to my lips to Anna-Clare and the dishwasher. Without a word, I scoop up the hot duck with my side towel and toss it into the pan, shove it in the oven and slam the door. I stand up and bump into another student, L.P., standing in front of me. Her face says it all. She doesn't approve, and I sense a lecture coming. But then, Chef Bouveret returns to the room, whistling and triumphant, having found the turnips that had been missing from the class basket.

"Look, look," he says, holding up the bowl.

I proceed with my recipe and plate as usual.

By now, whispered word of the dropped duck has spread. The dishwasher peeks around the corner. Will I let the chef taste the contaminated duck?

Chef tries the sauce. Good consistency, he says, but it needs more salt. My vegetable cuts earn a "bien." He tastes a tender turnip. His hand, clutching a small plastic spoon, hovers above the duck-breast meat, sliced thin and fanned out on the plate. Instead of taking a bite, he directs my attention to the coloring of the meat.

"Look, look, ici. Pas assez cuit," Chef says. It needed two more minutes of cooking on one side, he says. But otherwise, it's "bon travail," nice work.

In the locker room, Anna-Clare and I debate the duck. Why couldn't you reclaim food as long as it fell on a clean floor? And what about the "five-second" rule—that food won't pick up any bacteria in such a short period of time?

Still, when I take my half home, I tell my boyfriend, Mike, "Just don't eat the skin." He asks why. "It's a long story," I say.

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