Top | The Culinate Interview

Kathleen Flinn

(article, Celena Carr)

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p(blue). When Kathleen Flinn lost her corporate job at age 36, she decided to move to Paris and enroll at Le Cordon Bleu, the famous Parisian cooking school. She recounts her year abroad in The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, a memoir of culinary training, culture shock, and coming to terms with herself.

Studying at Le Cordon Bleu was a lifelong dream. Did the actual experience live up to your expectations?
It's surprising how even our dreams, once in the process of being fulfilled, can start to seem like a routine, even ordinary. I thought every day would be thrilling. I expected the school to be a gleaming shrine to gastronomy, with acres of stainless steel with all the latest gadgets. I hoped for views of the Eiffel Tower, as in the 1950s film "Sabrina." In reality, it's a fairly small school in an unimpressive building on a side street in southwest Paris. It's not possible to see the Eiffel Tower there, and most of the kitchens have no windows at all. 

I also expected the chefs to be pretentious, but they were not at all. They genuinely cared about the students, especially those who make it far enough to earn a diploma.  

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How does the Parisian philosophy of food differ from the American? 
Many people in Paris seem to shop every day. Like a lot of European countries, they have small refrigerators, and kitchens are often cramped, so part of it is just necessity. They demand good food, and that's why they get it. 

Eating is not about gaining fuel, but an experience to be savored with friends and family. A woman I met at a market said she'd rather pay 10 euros for three perfect tomatoes than 20 lesser ones. That's against the grain of much American thinking; a lot of \[our\] country is focused on getting everything as cheaply as possible. 

Which lessons — in school and out — did you really take home with you?
Culinary school teaches technique, but really it instills habits. I cook differently; I'm cleaner, more efficient. I am unfazed by any recipe; I know I can tackle it. I also learned to trust my own taste. 

But, like anything, the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. I am always reading, studying, and trying to learn more about cooking and food. 

From living in Paris, probably the greatest lesson I learned was how to shop for food from the older French women in the market. Honestly, they terrified me at first. You want to see someone on a mission? It's a 65-year-old French woman hell-bent on getting the best lamb shanks from a butcher, her wheeled rolling cart flying behind her. 

How has the way you eat changed since coming back to the U.S.?
I'm interested in the oddest item on a menu when I eat out, because I think it often says the most about a chef. I'm impressed by things I might not have noticed before. I would never have said, "Wow, what beautiful work on these diced carrots," but now I notice small things like that. 

Your book features graphic descriptions of preparing meat. How did you feel about preparing meat before and after becoming a cooking student?
OK, I'll admit it. I was a boned, skinless, value-pack, chicken-breast girl before I went to Le Cordon Bleu. Learning to butcher meat had a profound effect on me, and may explain why I went into so much detail about it in the book. It was a valuable lesson, one that made me respect meat more, knowing the origins and to have handled it in larger portions. It's easy to forget what you're eating when it comes boneless and packaged in plastic. 

The American media likes to chew over the supposed "French paradox," in which French people stay thin even while downing wine, cheese, and foie gras. What's your take on all this?
In general, most Europeans eat smaller portions on a daily basis. I think that's a key. They also tend to eat multiple courses: a little soup, a salad, then a main and cheese. Each is small, and by the time you get to the fattening main course, you're somewhat full. 

In Paris, like most big cities, people walk everywhere, so it's easy to walk three or four miles a day, and that helps enormously. The French also drink moderately, particularly by comparison to their British neighbors to the north. (When I lived in London, I learned drinking with the British is like driving with a pro on a closed course.) 

Not all French women are thin; that’s a myth. But French women who don't get fat simply learn to exercise restraint. 

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What are the dishes you'll continue to make forever?
At home, I cook a lot of simple comfort foods, especially those that will help me use up bits and pieces in my fridge: omelets, risotto, simple pasta dishes, slow-cooked beans, stuff like that. My husband loves pizza, so I make grilled pizza a couple of times a month. And I'm a huge fan of roast chicken, so I'm always experimenting and tampering with spice rubs, marinades, and the like. 

For dinner parties, I lean on French classics such as beef bourguignon and cassoulet. On a cold, rainy Seattle day, there's nothing better than French onion soup. My favorite summer meal is a simple arugula salad with hot chèvre rounds on toast, dressed in a simple lemon-oil dressing. 

Name some of your favorite books about food.
There are two camps of book about food: the ones that will always be on my shelf, and the ones that have caught my recent attention. On the permanent shelf, I'm partial to M.F.K. Fisher, and I recommend her collected works to anyone who wants to write about food. I adore Julia Child's work, notably My Life in France and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone is one of my favorite food memoirs, while I consult Alan Davidson's [%bookLink code=0142001635 "Penguin Companion to Food"] all the time. I've collected most of the Culinaria series of books — huge, oversized tomes about various countries. The photography is wonderful, and they're a great introduction to a country's cuisine.   

In terms of recent books, my favorites are The United States of Arugula by David Kamp, Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant edited by Jenni Ferarri-Adler, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Cod by Mark Kurlansky, [%bookLink code=039305196X "Cooking for Mr. Latte"] by Amanda Hesser, [%bookLink code=0743299787 "The Elements of Cooking"] by Michael Ruhlman and of course, [%bookLink code=0060899220 "Kitchen Confidential"]_ by Anthony Bourdain. 

p(bio). Celena Carr is a freelance writer and designer in Portland, Oregon.

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