The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry

A review of a book published in 2007 hardly qualifies as a review. It’s just that I was so looking forward to reading the book. I met Kathleen Flinn at a conference last year and I was impressed by what she said and how she thought. I talked to her after her panel and, like I said, I was eager to read her book.

So eager, of course, that it took me a year to pick it up. It is the story of her diploma from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (there are several these days). Around 2003, Flinn was fired from her middle management position in London and, with the encouragement of her then boyfriend, decided to fulfill a dream and attend Le Cordon Bleu. This book is her story.

It was hard for me not to compare it to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, about the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Ruhlman attended the school with the full permission of the CIA, intending to write about what it took to graduate with a two-year degree. In our conversation, Flinn said she decided to write about her experiences shortly after she began the school, but kept it to herself until after she graduated. Ruhlman’s book focuses on the transformation students go through in becoming professional chefs. He is fascinated by veal stock, by the characters of the instructors and by the education itself.

Flinn’s book intertwines her class work with her growing attachment to the man she will ultimately marry. Many chapters end with little life lessons drawn from her class work or her boyfriend that comment on each other. I do not know whether she intended it that way or her editor felt that the book would sell better that way, but it began to feel more about relationships than food. One episode will illustrate my point. Learning to make soufflés, she recalls Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina’s fallen soufflés. A woman happy in love burns the soufflé, says a helpful baron. A woman unhappy in love forgets to turn on the oven. She turns her oven on the minute she gets to the kitchen. A talisman not an authentic act.

On the other hand, Flinn is a “real” student. She is committed to finishing the course and to getting the degree. Le Cordon Bleu is not the CIA. The CIA trains professionals. It is a college. The students at Le Cordon Bleu range from professionals in training to those who simply want to learn to cook for their own purposes. When Rulhman tells his instructor that because of a forecasted snowstorm, he won’t be at class the next day, the chef replies that it’s OK, he’s not a real chef anyway. Ruhlman, of course, makes sure to get there. When Flinn’s impending wedding means that she won’t graduate with her class, she chooses the wedding.

And returns to the school for the third section, Superior. Married, two-thirds through her education, and increasingly comfortable and competent in the kitchen, the third section sings. There is more kitchen, more cooking, more of the details that you want and need in a cooking memoir. The narrator focuses on her work. She has the time to look at her fellow students and see a little more deeply into who they are. Her relationships with her instructors have a quiet and studied bond. In short, it becomes the memoir I wanted.

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