Joining a French restaurant kitchen is a baptism by fire. An apprentice has mere moments to make an impression, and, according to Yves Camdeborde, owner of Paris’ four Avant-Comptoir restaurants, is frequently given a task whose outward simplicity conceals true technicity. To succeed is to garner favour; to fail is to show one still has much to learn. Such is the role, from corner bistros to Michelin-starred dining rooms, of the omelette.
A French omelette, Camdeborde explained, stands out from versions where fillings are mixed right in with the eggs.
“We make an envelope,” he said. “We fill it, and we roll.”
The resulting omelette should be pale white outside and baveuse (literally, “drooling”) within. And Camdeborde should know.
In a story he has clearly told many times before, he recalled his certificat d’aptitude professionnelle (CAP) vocational qualification. Apprentices’ tasks were set at random, he said, and the 16-year-old Camdeborde was assigned omelette aux fines herbes (omelette with herbs).
“I think I got 17 or 18 (out of 20),” he said. “I was top of my CAP class – thanks to the omelette!”
His score earned him a spot in the regional Meilleur Apprenti de France (Best Apprentice in France) competition, among “kids from two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants”.
“I was the only one who came from a little neighbourhood bistro,” he said. At this competition too, he was randomly assigned the omelette, earning him a spot at the semi-finals in Paris. Here, the young apprentice made one last omelette and earned the chance to partake in a final challenge.
Alas, the next assignment proved far more onerous. He was tasked with making slow-cooked veal Choisy, with its white wine sauce and braised lettuce accompaniment, and sole soufflée, which sees the delicate fish stuffed with a mushroom cream. He had never even heard of the elaborate dishes, much less made them. Upon finishing ninth of nine, he burst into tears, pulling on the heartstrings of the chef de cuisine.