May 20, 2009
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
Nonfiction - Culinary Memoir
Finished on 5/16/09
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
In 2003, Kathleen Flinn was a thirty-six-year-old American in London who felt trapped in corporate middle management—until her boss eliminated her job while she was on vacation. Ignoring her mother's advice that she find another job immediately or "never get hired anywhere ever again," Flinn cleared out her savings account and moved to Paris to pursue a dream—a diploma from the venerable Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
But instead of being ushered into "a glamorous world of soufflés and foie gras," Flinn found herself struggling in a stew of hot-tempered chefs, competitive classmates, and her own "wretchedly inadequate" French. She trudged home traumatized by gutting fish, severing the heads off rabbits, and dropping an entire roast duck on the floor moments before having to present her plate to the presiding chef. One day she was even advised that her tronçons de colin pochés needed "a bit more salt" from the homeless man who sat near the school's entrance.
As the story moves through the various classes, the basics of French cuisine—the ingredients, cooking techniques, wine, and more than two dozen recipes—are interwoven, but not every page is spent in the kitchen. Flinn also offers her experience of the vibrant sights and sounds of the markets, shops, and avenues of Paris.
In time, Flinn triumphs in her battle with puff pastry, masters her sauces, and wins over the toughest chef. More important, though, she finds within herself the strength to pause on her life's journey to challenge a career-focused mentality and attempt a discovery of what really matters to her. She even comes to realize that the love of her life has been right in front of her the whole time.
Fans of Julie & Julia, Cooking for Mr. Latte, and Eat, Pray, Love will be amused, inspired, and richly rewarded by this vibrant tale of romance, food, Paris, and pursuing a dream.
I love memoirs and since I enjoy cooking almost as much as reading and photography, culinary memoirs are high on my list of favorites. Stephanie (from The Written Word) was kind enough to send me a copy of Flinn's book early last year. I've been trying to get to all the "gift" books I've received over the years and am glad I finally took the time to read this gem! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Kathleen's experiences at Le Cordon Bleu. My copy is littered with sticky notes!
Inspired to do something significant with her life (after typing up a depressingly short obituary for her hometown newspaper), and reminded of her parents' creed that "Life is not a dress rehearsal," Flinn wrote the following "Statement of Motivation" for her application to Le Cordon Bleu:
I have wanted to attend Le Cordon Bleu for at least 10 years. No, that's not true. I think I've always wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu, even before I knew that's what I wanted. I have been passionate about food and cooking since I was a little girl. Professionally, I have worked as a journalist for more than a decade. I once figured out that by age 30, I'd written a thousand stories. I've worked as a restaurant critic and a food writer, and I believe this training will give me greater understanding and perspective in that aspect of my career. It is my dream to write books about food, about cooking, about nourishing people, heart, soul and stomach....I don't know that I want to be a chef, or that I particularly want to work in the food industry when I am done with my training....I just know that going to Le Cordon Bleu is something that I have to do.
Well, I love to cook, and I love to read memoirs about cooking, but I definitely have no desire to attend a formal cooking school or work as a chef in a restaurant! It sounds extremely demanding (and at times a bit cruel) and I'm afraid I'd walk out without a diploma and absent any of the enthusiasm I might have once had for cooking.
Flinn's experience as a journalist is quite apparent. Her memoir is not only a joy to read, but quite informative. I learned a great deal about the history of Le Cordon Bleu, as well as numerous cooking techniques. And, of course, I marked several recipes to sample in the privacy of my own kitchen. Recipes such as Potage "Minestrone" à la Façon de Ma Mère, Boeuf à la Bourguignonne, Poulet Cordon Bleu, Spaghetti Bolognaise de Sharon, Pizza Grillée, Sauce Tomate aux Herbes et à l'Ail, Coq au Vin et Thym, Filet de Bar au Lait de Coco et Épices Douces, and Boeuf en Croûte Champignons avec Sauce Vin Rouge. How hard could they be? :)
On French cooking and butter:
Chef moves on to the mashed potatoes that will accompany the grilled sirloin we'll prepare in the rest of our practical. "You should add roughly half as much butter as potatoes," Anne translates as the chef churns soft just-boiled potatoes through a food mill. "Un petit peu de beurre," Chef says—"a little bit of butter"—tossing three sticks of butter in. He beats them in with a wide plastic spoon and pours in a generous dose of cream. Mike will love them, but my thighs will not.
On the reality of a professional cooking school:
With a plastic spoon, he scoops up some sauce for a taste, then cuts into my fish. "The fillet is not even, your fish is overcooked, your sauce is too thin, it needs more salt, and your parsley isn't chopped finely enough. Thank you," he looks at my name tag, "Miss Flinn." With a bored tone, he calls, "Next?"
That's it. After three hours, two fish, some three thousand calories in wine and butter, and ruined notes, I clean up, put my tiny fillets in my enormous Tupperware, and wearily head downstairs with Kim, L.P., LizKat, and Anna-Clare, the woman who works across from me.
Kim drops her knives on the floor. "This isn't cooking, it's like learning some complicated sport," she says wearily, tugging off her necktie.
"Why am I so flustered in the kitchen?" Anna-Clare wonders aloud. Like me, she had along dreamed of coming to Le Cordon Bleu and finally convinced her advertising agency to give her a three-month sabbatical so that she could. "It's just bizarre. In my job, I have to make presentations to marketing directors and corporate chiefs all the time, and I can do that without being nervous. I mean, I knew this would be kind of stressful, but I'm surprised at how the scrutiny of the chefs completely unsettles me."
"But you're probably not as emotionally tied to those presentations," I tell her.
I know how they both feel, especially Anna-Clare. In my own kitchen, I'm usually sipping a glass of wine while I cook. Now I'm exhausted, and it's only the second day. I look at my bloodstained apron, gray bits still clinging to parts of it. This isn't like Sabrina at all.
Audrey Hepburn would never have ended up covered in fish guts.
In addition to reading all the entertaining details about a cooking school, I enjoyed a personal challenge of my own. I attempted to translate the chefs' French before reading Flinn's translations. It's been 30 years since I sat in Monsieur Beckers' high school French class! I was very surprised to discover I could understand more than 50% of the French (and closer to 80% by the end of the book). Stupefier! ;)
I've read a few culinary memoirs (and novels) and this rates right up there with Julie and Julia, On Rue Tatin, and The School of Essential Ingredients. Definitely a keeper!
Further praise from a fellow blogger:
With the full support of her then boyfriend Mike, Kathleen embarks on a life changing experience. Not your typical “cooking school memoir” Kathleen tells the story of grueling cooking classes, looking for affordable Paris apartments, planning a wedding and mastering the art of puff pastry with wit and charm. At times laugh out loud funny (the author describing how her so-so French got her the nickname “the crazy pizza lady” from a local restaurant) to the more touching moments of her life (in particular when Mike is involved in a terrible accident), The Sharper Your Knife was a delightful look into the life of a women trying to make her way in Paris. (Stephanie, from The Written Word)
Click here to read Stephanie's interview with Kathleen Flinn.