Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Parisian Cooking Challenge

Review by Barbara Newton-Holmes

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School.
Kathleen Flinn.
Viking Adult. 2007. 304 pp.
ISBN 9780670018239.

Kathleen Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry is a love story, set against her time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, "The World's Most Famous Cooking School." It's a tale of the romantic blossoming and commitment to the love of her life, Mike Klozar, but it's also about her love of Paris, the Parisians, and, of course, cooking. Most of all, it's a story of transformation.

Two hours on the ground in London after a defining vacation in the States with Mike, Flinn is met by her boss and told that her executive job at is done. She'd "lost a job that (she) was desperate to quit," feeling "relieved yet rejected to the point of being crushed." Eight years of corporate life had left her feeling "imprisoned by an impressive title, travel, perks and a good salary."

Prudence, in the voice of her mother, tells her to get another job as soon as possible. Mike, the voice of romance and adventure, reminds her of her dream—and backs it up by saying he'd come with her. (What a guy! How could she resist?) She hangs up the phone with him, and fills out the application on-line to the school she has long dreamed of, resisting the urge to delete it. She's accepted within three days for the term that begins in less than a month.

Out of the fast lane and into the fire, Flinn leaps into an elementally different world. It's not what she says that matters now (unless it's "Oui, Chef!"), but what she does, guided by her senses and physical skill. The professional kitchen is a realm of physical sensuality, buttoned up by the discipline, organization, and professionalism established by Escoffier in turn-of-the-century Paris. "It's a world of rules, uniforms, and efficient chefs whom (she) can't quite understand."

Work in the kitchen is demanding and dangerous: sharp knives, hot pots, scalding liquids, standing for hours and moving at break-neck speed. "Cooking is a physical job; it requires strength, endurance, and the ability to do what you're told without complaint, even if you disagree." The chef, as Flinn learns, is absolute authority:

Chefs in a kitchen must be able to relay on one another, the way soldiers do in the heat of battle. But will we students be able to stand the heat of the kitchen? Will I?

Flinn shows her own gritty determination and endurance, despite early disillusionment—this is certainly not the school of Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina. She works her way through the disenchantment of a fun hobby into professional proficiency. Her perseverance serves her well at Le Cordon Bleu, even through the humiliation of being a beginner. She learns to take the heat with calmness and earns admiration, even friendship, from her instructors. But it doesn't start out that way.

In The Sharper Your Knife Flinn captures the rhythm and stress of day-to-day lessons with humor and self-effacement. Every day they have a demonstration in the morning, followed by making the exact same dish, which is then presented to the chef instructor for comment. Early on in Basic Cuisine (the first of three courses for the diploma), one dish includes a pastry shell (vols-au-vent), lined with sautéed leeks, a poached egg, and Albufera sauce, a basic cream sauce blended with stock.

I put together several little vols-au-vent. They look as if a kindergartener put them together with Play-Doh. I agonize over my leeks to cut them into a perfect julienne. Then I work on my eggs. We must make them the classic way, by dropping them in simmering water with vinegar and, with a ladle, wrapping the egg white around the yolk as it cooks. Poached eggs should look like shiny, smooth parcels. Mine look like gnarled creatures from a horror film. As I finish the last egg, a strong burning smell hits me, a mix of burned grass and onions. I forgot my leeks. They've burned to black. I feel a tap on my elbow. "Attention! Regardez votre pâte," warns Chef Bertrand. He points to the convection oven at the end of the room.

From there, she dashes to the oven to find her pastry leaden, not light. A moment later, her cream sauce boils over. And she's out of time. Her assembled plate needs to be ready for presentation to the chef momentarily.

And, through all this, Flinn is struggling to learn French and her way around Paris. She gives a wonderful sense of living in the city; the markets and cafés, clubs and neighborhoods. Contrary to the common myth, the Parisians she meets are helpful and generous. A three-Michelin-stars chef is cordial and charming. Even in a bar with a posted sign saying, "No Service for English or Americans" (left over from the Allied liberation of Paris) the French come through with generosity and hospitality.

The book's title comes originally from instructions for cutting up an onion, but tears also come from the humiliation of being shouted at by a chef, or the challenges of relationships. But the author is determined to endure in both. She makes her way through the courses: "turning vegetables" into geometric footballs, chopping up whole rabbits, killing lobsters, learning to always "taste, taste, taste," making puff pastry over and over at home until it's right, dealing with competitive classmates who swipe ingredients meant for other students. But it's not all tears. There's laughter, like when a lobster makes a valiant getaway attempt, scrambling along the floor away from a Japanese student who sings after it, "So sar-ry lob-sta, so sar-ry—Bye-ee-bye-ee!" And there's lots of partying, late into the night: "When the going gets tough, the tough, well, throw a party."

Flinn's 21st century experience is seasoned with the history of the Le Cordon Bleu, with special homage to Julia Child, the most famous of its American graduates. Child, whom Flinn met years before, is like her patron saint, encouraging her on from her picture in the school.

Over the three courses to the final diploma, Flinn learns more than cooking and French. She learns what really matters to her. Especially when she meets other "corporate refugees," she realizes that her drive to "please and achieve" has given way to a life that is deeper and more authentic in its own right.

Was the book (a great read in its own right) put together too hastily, trying to ride the thermals of the enormously successful Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert? Two blurbs—not just one—from Gilbert grace the dust jacket, along with one from Michael Ruhlman, author of The Soul of a Chef. All are published by Penguin, but I never found the ragged copyediting in those that I stumbled on in Flinn's book.

From the dedication at the beginning, "To Mike——There are not enough words in any language to say how much I love you," to the end of the Acknowledgements, "I couldn't have done this—­any of it——without him," ultimately, this book all about love.


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