Écoutez Votre Cœur
Cooking is my secret passion. There’s nothing I’d rather do on a Saturday afternoon than bake a pan of goat cheese lasagna or whip up a warm beet salad with spinach and candied walnuts. My kitchen is equipped with a ten-piece set of professional Calphalon pans, even though I usually only cook for one or two people. I watch Top Chef and the Food Network while hyperventilating as though it were me racing around the kitchen, and I jot down longhand notes so I won’t forget recipes that look exceptionally delicious. After a hard day of reading form rejection letters and retooling articles, sometimes I daydream of giving it all up and going to culinary school.
Thirty-six-year-old American journalist Kathleen Flinn took the plunge and followed her own culinary dreams in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. When I first started reading, I have to admit I felt a pang of jealousy that Flinn was able to break free from her corporate content management job and make a clean start in France. Flinn was accepted into the legendary Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, which has garnered international fame by teaching classic French cuisine to some of the world’s most renowned chefs, including Julia Child. Although Flinn’s desire was not to become a professional chef, she felt that a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu would enrich her writing, as well as her life.
Flinn documents all three course levels of her cooking school education, starting with Basic Cuisine, moving on to Intermediate Cuisine, and finally detailing Superior Cuisine. She describes the intricate preparation of dozens of dishes that she learned through the Cordon Bleu curriculum, including classic French entrees like coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. At the end of each chapter, Flinn also includes a recipe of her own. These recipes are mostly inspired by her cooking classes, but are adapted for a broader audience that has not mastered the complicated Le Cordon Bleu techniques, like turning vegetables or deboning a chicken with the skin still intact.
Kathleen Flinn displays incredible determination by moving to France to pursue her dreams after taking only one year of “wretchedly inadequate” college French. Although there is an English translator present in most class sessions, the language barrier becomes a nerve-wracking struggle for Flinn, as the French chefs refuse to give notes in English. As the curriculum progresses, however, Flinn seems to take the no-nonsense attitude and harsh criticism from her French teachers in her stride. Instead of falling apart, she focuses even more intently on the minute attention to detail that is required in order to execute the dishes correctly, and wins the respect of Le Cordon Bleu’s distinguished teaching staff.
Readers who dislike cooking will probably dislike this book. In fact, it may not be enough to enjoy food, or even to enjoy books (or movies) like Julie Powell’s recently popular Julie and Julia. Although Flinn successfully describes her finished meals in scrumptious detail, the preparation of most dishes are so gory that some foodies may be turned off by all the unappetizing elements. After Flinn thoroughly describes the butchering of a headless lamb, for example, I realized that I may not have what it takes to go to cooking school. I was raised as a vegetarian, and I have gradually added fish and very occasional poultry to my diet. But I’m squeamish about being served a chicken leg with a bone attached, so something tells me that scraping sweetbreads out of a piglet’s pituitary gland would not be my forté.
For the faint-of-heart food lover like myself, the addition of Flinn’s adapted recipes are a relief, as they do not require you to butcher the animal yourself. I’ve been staying at my vegan father’s house this Thanksgiving week, so I felt guilty about defaming his kitchen with fish or chicken. When I get home, I can’t wait to try the Sea Bass With Coconut Milk and Oriental Spice Sauce (adapted from one of Flinn’s Brazilian classmates), the Chicken With Mustard Sauce, and the Puff-Pastry “Cake” With Tuna Ceviche. Rather than shelving the book for years until I’ve forgotten enough to read it again, I can see myself referring to and opening The Sharper Your Knife frequently while adding new recipes to my collection. In addition to the adapted Le Cordon Bleu recipes, Flinn also includes recipes relating to events that occur in the book. For example, a recipe for homemade chicken soup follows a chapter where Flinn is sick in bed for several days. The book’s addition of recipes provides a greater sensory experience for the reader, and Flinn even writes an epilogue about how to prepare and serve her dishes at book clubs.
Flinn’s memoir encourages readers to go out there and follow their passion, but I learned an even more valuable lesson from The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: I do not belong in culinary school. Flinn gave me an inside view of her entire culinary training from start to finish, and although I found the book fascinating, it completely demystified my idea of going to cooking school. After learning the incredible dedication, concentration and precision required to become a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, I decided that I’m better off cooking at home with prepackaged chicken breast instead of painstakingly hacking the meat apart myself. For now, I’m satisfied to cook Flinn’s Tuna Ceviche in the comfort of my own home, savoring each delicious bite all by myself.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn (Penguin, 2008)
Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell (Little, Brown and Company, 2005)
Lindsay Champion’s short stories and personal narratives have been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney’s, Fray Quarterly, SMITH Magazine and Common Ties. She has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications. She earned her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. She lives in Los Angeles with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s website. Contact Lindsay.