The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry (and author interview)
I hardly ever read memoirs, unless it has something to do with food. Cooking, like reading and knitting, is one of my passions in life. From Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential to Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously (which I reviewed here) I really enjoy reading about experiences in the kitchen. When Kathleen Flinn, author of The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, offered to send me a copy of her book, I couldn’t pass it up.
Kathleen, an American who had just been downsized from her job in London, throws caution to the wind and decides on a whim to follow her childhood dream and apply to Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school in Paris. 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.
Peppered with recipes from Le Cordon Bleu (and one for Minestrone from Kathleen’s own childhood) and vivid descriptions of life in Paris, this book was a visual feast from beginning to end. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love is quoted on the book cover saying “Flinn’s tale of chasing her ultimate dream makes for a really lovely book – engaging, intelligent, and surprisingly suspenseful.” I couldn’t agree more.
Kathleen was gracious enough to grant me an interview. Read on for some more interesting information about Kathleen and her book:
You wrote an entire chapter on some of the things that influenced you to attend Le Cordon Bleu (your sister’s obsession with Paris, the death of your father and your desire to heal your family’s broken heart with food, your boyfriends unwavering support) but you don’t talk much about your decision to become a journalist. Had you always wanted to be a writer?
That’s a good question. I always loved words. After I was eight years old, I was often lonely as a child. Within the space of a year, we moved from the farm, most of my brothers and sister graduated from high school and left home and my father was diagnosed with cancer. I escaped into books. I wrote a lot, too; I put my first book together with freezer tape when I was nine. (It was science fiction; I don’t write in that genre anymore.) Although my third grade teacher told me I ought to be a writer when I grew up, I went to college with my sights on media law. But then I got paid $10 to write a story for the college newspaper. I was amazed that I could get paid to do something that felt as natural as breathing. So I went into journalism, and never looked back. In many ways, I feel that writing this book gave me back my identity, that again I found myself with the title “writer,” rather than “mid-level corporate manager.” I’m back to what that third grade teacher, Mrs. MacKenzie, told me I should be doing with my life.
You go into detailed descriptions of the architecture and scenery of Paris. Do you miss living there? Do you often visit France?
Oh, how I miss Paris. There’s something about it that can creep into your soul, which is why so many people have a lifelong love affair with the city. I went back in October 2006 to share the final manuscript with the people at Le Cordon Bleu, and I haven’t been back since then. In my dream life, I live there part of the year. But this year, I will be there for about a month. AAA Signatours designed a tour of Parisaround my book that includes a day with Le Cordon Bleu chefs, a tour of Rungis and other culinary excursions, and I also will lead the group on a tour of my old neighborhood, the passages and more. You can read more about it on my web site. (http://kathleenflinn.com/aaatour.html ) I’m looking forward to sitting at a café, watching the world go by.
At the beginning of the book you introduce Mike, your then boyfriend and personal cheerleader. Mike played a huge part in encouraging you not only to apply to Le Cordon Bleu, but also put his life on hold to be in Paris with you. When you began writing a memoir about cooking school, did you originally intend to include the story of your romance?
For me, the romance was inextricably linked to the story, so I never considered leaving it out. It was tricky, though, to write about these very personal details. Mike also served as my daily editor, too. I’d produce pages each day, and he’d pour me a glass of wine and read back my work aloud. We’d talk about it, he’d suggest changes and the next day, I’d work on it some more. We did a lot of collaboration, and his imprint is all over the book. He did want me to leave out the part where we break the bed (in three places), but I felt it said all that needed to be declared about that part of our relationship, so I left it in. He’s still embarrassed about it.
Reading your book was a little bit like coming home for me. I attended culinary school in New York City, while also working full time for a large company, back in 1999. I studied baking and pastry arts (and struggled like you did at making puff pastry with warm hands). Are there any recipes from Le Cordon Bleu that you still make at home?
Oh sure, absolutely. I make reduction sauces when I want to impress, a braised dish when I need something soulful. I learned both at school. For dinner parties, I lean on classics such as beef bourguignon and cassoulet. My day-to-day routine includes simple comfort foods. I learned that nothing goes to waste in a kitchen, so I make it a goal to use everything in my fridge. This means I make many omelets, risotto, simple pasta dishes, quiche, lots of stews and soups. I pair white beans with almost everything. On a cold, rainy Seattle day there’s nothing better than French onion soup. My favorite dish was a lamb tian, a dish that didn’t make it into the book. I’ve made that directly from the Le Cordon Bleu recipe several times. I’m surprised by the things that I have continued to find useful. Caul fat, for instance. In the book, I think it’s fair to say I sound horrified by this web-like layer of fat when we use it in school to hold together stuffed meats. I still use it from time to time, and I was disappointed when I couldn’t find it at Thanksgiving when I boned a whole turkey for and stuffed the breasts and legs.
In your book you describe a luncheon you had with some of your cooking school friends, calling yourselves les femmes du Cordon Bleu. After someone toasted to never ending friendships, you write “I think of all the people with whom I’ve promised to keep friendships yet haven’t. I truly hope we will.” Have you kept in touch with any of these women? Have they read the book?
I have kept in touch with almost all of the people from that afternoon, remarkably enough. The most amazing thing about going to school in Parisis that now I have friends all over the world. Many of them read the sections about themselves when I was working on the book, so they got a sneak preview. I wanted them to feel comfortable with what I was writing about them. I keep in regular contact with Lely in Jakarta, Sharon in Tel Aviv, LizKat in London, Shelley-Anne (“Anna-Claire”) in Toronto. From later in the book, I’ve stayed in close touch with Karina (“Isabella”) in Los Angeles and Julie in Florida. I have other friends who aren’t in the book who I am still friends with, too, including one who sometimes house sits for us in Seattle. All of these people are living intensely interesting lives; I am hoping to visit some of them and write about them in the next year.
With a degree from Le Cordon Bleu under your belt, what are you working on now?
I’m at work on another book, a column for a new travel web site and some other writing and cooking projects. I do cook on an intimate catering scale occasionally, and I also teach cooking classes from time to time. I spent today testing a braised chicken recipe for a magazine story, researching cooking methods for escargot and writing about a Balinese spice merchant. I have to say, it sure beats those corporate management meetings.
To learn more about The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, check out Kathleen’s blog.