It began with an obituary. Kathleen Flinn was getting her start as a fledgling journalist in the obituary section when she came across an obituary stating only the deceased’s name, that of her husband, and her birth and death dates. Looking at that brief obituary, Flinn realized that it was time to pursue her dream of going to Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school made famous by Julia Child, so that when the time came, her obituary would be able to proclaim to the world that she had done something special with her life.
The stage was set when Flinn suddenly lost her job as an executive with Microsoft. Knowing very little French, and encouraged (and later accompanied) by her new boyfriend, Flinn drained her savings account and flew to Paris to pursue her dream of learning to cook professionally. What she experienced while going through Le Cordon Bleu’s three stages of cuisine to get her diploma is the basis of her wonderful memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. During the six months she spent in Paris, she would learn more about cooking, life, and herself than she bargained for.
The diploma program for Le Cordon Bleu is broken into three sections which must all be completed sequentially in order to get the diploma: Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine. Each section revolved around 30 core recipes, each of which would teach different cooking techniques and in some cases, would expose them to different cuisines from around the world. Each day, the students would first watch the chefs prepare the food and take notes, and would then be expected to prepare the food themselves in the student kitchens. They would then be graded by the chefs on taste, techniques, and presentation. And God forbid you serve hot food on a cold plate!
You wouldn’t think that a book about cooking could be suspenseful. You would be wrong. Flinn made you feel the stress of trying to please the very exacting chefs that supervised the courses and graded their food and technique. You acutely felt Flinn’s disappointment when food didn’t work out as it should, and felt her embarrassment and anger when the chefs yelled at her or her classmates. It’s not quite Kitchen Nightmares, but it’s close! You wondered if Flinn would be able to stay the course and graduate, even after she takes a break to get married and has several medical emergencies. And even more important, you realize how creative, physically demanding, and perfectionistic professional cooking really is. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat out at a nice restaurant in the same way again.
Flinn brings to vibrant life the camaraderie of working in the kitchen and her love of food, making good friends in all three parts of the diploma program, but most importantly, reminds us all not to let our dreams sit on a shelf, even if they seem crazy or unattainable. She made me want to hop on the first flight out to Paris, and even though I’m a picky eater and would never go near a vegetable of my own free will, made me want to learn to cook. After reading this book, I checked out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol I, and may have to try something in there, just to say that I did. A great read.
Here’s a great video of Kathleen in action.