The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooki

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Viking Adult

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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 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 soufflÃ[emoji]169[/emoji]s 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 pochÃ[emoji]169[/emoji]s 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 the 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 of chefs. More importantly, though, she finds within herself the strength to pause on the usual journey and challenge a career-focused mind set 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 chasing a life's dream.


Kathleen Flinn
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Viking Adult
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Viking Adult
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School

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Most people would certainly rejoice to have such an affable dinner companion as Kathleen Flinn,  one with so many amusing stories about her adventures in Paris---which include her time attending classes at Le Cordon Bleu.  These tales in her The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry are just long enough to entertain one's table partners between courses.  And they even leave one wishing for more . . . a lot more in terms of detail, sensory experience, and character descriptions.  

So far as dinner party conversations go, this would be fine—other people have to have a chance to talk too.  However, in the case of memoirs, when readers are left wanting too much more, they turn to more engaging companions.     Flinn was made redundant from her London job, and, thus found herself available for a life-makeover.  An old, long-since shelved dream of studying cooking in Paris suddenly became a possibility.  If she were willing to use her savings instead of immediately looking for a new job, if she were willing to move to Paris with her new(ish) boyfriend with whom she had never really lived before, if she were willing to redefine herself using a new language—literally as well as figuratively—then maybe a new and better life awaited her at Le Cordon Bleu.  

One way to see this book is as a life-at-the-crossroads voyage of remaking oneself.  And in this day and age of down-sizing, a lot of people are involuntarily facing just such a situation.  But for this strategy to work, the reader has to care about the person confronting this challenge.  It's not that Flinn isn't an accessible, even friendly writer.  But I never got a good enough sense of who she was, so how could I care about her or her boyfriend or her friends?  It's like when someone launches into their marital problems before you've known them more than five minutes.  Also, details of her life, her cooking life in particular, are glossed over.  She mentions having worked in restaurants, but not when or in what capacity.  What skills did she have walking in?  What kinds of cooking had she done?  It's difficult to understand the challenges—other than the language—she faced without knowing what was already understood.

And yet this is the hook, the seeming focus of the book:  the adventures of an American with minimal French and nice dinner-party cooking skills at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.  Sounds like fun as well as instructive.  A madcap Michael Ruhlman with a sense of humor.  Mary Tyler Moore in Paris beheading a bunny with a bloody cleaver.  No such luck.  It's not that there aren't some good anecdotes of under-seasoned sauces, cold plates, dismissive chefs, and competitive students who hoard ingredients or chase live lobsters across kitchen floors à  la Annie Hall, but they are so short that they rarely advance to the level of real stories.  Flinn almost seems afraid of boring her readers, so she just hits a few high points and then moves on to the next bit of drama or humor.  Also, the journalistic aspect (she does keep telling people in the book that she is a journalist) of the book is sorely lacking.  There's just not enough detailed description of the school's strategy for a student's skill development.  After the first few chapters of basic sauces—though the stocks were made elsewhere to save the students' time—fish filleting and basic pastry dough, the recipes and skills seemed to come in no particular order:  One day quiche and another day John Dory.  Just a jumble of cooking classes for all I could see.  And, though Flinn is a decent writer with a pleasant, straight-forward style, the food descriptions lacked sensuality.  I got no sense of smell, texture, or taste.  Nothing ever made me hungry!

And the recipes at the end of most chapters do little to remedy that.  Like Ruth Reichl in her autobiographies, Flinn ends most chapters with a recipe.  But unlike Reichl, these dishes fail to expand on a sensory experience established in the pages before. Reichl not only makes us want to taste what she has described, she makes us want to have the experience of cooking it.  But Flinn's recipes too often feel tacked-on.  And frequently, we can't even tell whose recipes these are.  Some are attributed in a title like "Potage ‘Minestrone' à  la Faà§on de Ma Mà¨re" (please don't ask me why this is in French) but others are not.  Some of those others reflect that chapter's "lesson," but I can find no explicit credit given to Le Cordon Bleu.  As for taste, I did try two recipes.  The "Lapin ou Poulet a la Moutarde"  wasn't bad, though the optional cream all but eliminated the "moutarde" aspect of the sauce.

However, the "Spaghetti Bolognaise de Sharon" that she raved about several times in the book was truly dreadful, sour and bitter and, well, GAH!  It resembled the type of cat food our cat Phoebe rejects.

There was one story that, though it did not make me want to eat, did make me want to experiment with my cooking.  The Superior Cuisine class dinner was held at Ledoyen, and chef Christian Le Squer visited their tables to see how the students liked the food.  Most were trying hard to impress him, hoping for a chance to intern there.  Of course it is Flinn who accidentally captures the chef's attention and imagination by complimenting his favorite dish of the evening, and, drawing on the El Bulli book she had looked at earlier, noted the balance he achieved between savory and sweet.  When she refers to his accomplishment as "Une danse," he is captivated.  He then goes on to explain how, after the kitchen closes at night, he challenges himself by taking ingredients that wouldn't appear compatible—like beets and fish--and finding ways to make them work together—using the sweetness of beet sorbet against the salt of the fish.  Of course he offers her the internship, and, of course, she hadn't even thought about interning so the required paperwork wasn't completed.  But she makes us feel that she was more enchanted with the flattering exchange than disappointed in a missed opportunity.

In the Forward, Flinn states that she did not tell the school she was writing a book until the manuscript was sold.  Unlike Ruhlman who told the CIA beforehand what his project was, Flinn wanted to be treated like any other student.  But did she know before she began that this book was her goal rather than cooking?  And what exactly was the book's goal?  Other than giving some regional explanation for the ingredients used in the Intermediate level, the order and requirements for the three levels of the Cuisine Diploma are left vague.  We're told how stressful the Final Exams for each level are, but not given enough information to get a feel for the experience ourselves.  And, at the very least, why is the history of such a famous school limited to a couple of pages with a few facts (one important one repeated from earlier in the book)?

Possibly the key to the project lies in the way each chapter is divided between a cooking lesson (very briefly sketched out), a living in Paris lesson, and a relationship (romantic or otherwise) lesson, all culminating in a LIFE LESSON like the one offered at the end of the chapter titled "Memoirs of a Quiche":  "You can't hurry love, and you can't rush puff pastry, either.  You can knead too much, and you can be too needy."  You get the general idea.

Maybe The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry should be approached as an eclectic, if minimal buffet where one can sample bites of Paris, sips of Le Cordon Bleu, the scent of romance, and glimpses of attractive if slightly bland French cooking.


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