Over the last few years, I've discovered that reading about cooking can be great fun. And along the way I've also found out how much I don't know about cooking, which just adds fuel to the fire to learn more. One way I've discovered to fill the gap is to find out about other people's experiences.
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The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry is one of those experiences, seen through the eyes of the author, Kathleen Flinn. It's also a travelogue, the tale of a growing love affair, a close-in look at the French and especially the city of Paris, and most of all, Le Cordon Bleu, one of the best cooking schools in the world.
The story begins as Kathleen has to decide on her future. She's in her mid-thirties, has just been let go from her job in London, and is at loose ends. Does she go back to the States, does she stay in London, or does she take an entirely new direction? That's the rather daunting choice that she's facing, but her boyfriend, Mike, suggests, why not follow your dream and go study at Le Cordon Bleu?
It's something that she's always dreamed about, and on impulse, she find the on-line application, sends it off, and is amazed when she receives a reply to start in a matter of weeks. Talk about finding new direction in a matter of minutes! With a smattering of French, no where to really live, her boyfriend in Seattle -- and deciding to come live with her -- Kathleen plunges into the world of haut cuisine.
It's an eye-opener of a book. Told in a series of small chapters, I laughed and cringed with Kathleen as she battled the language barrier, disdainful chefs, her fellow students, and her own preconceptions. Each chapter goes into learning about a particular food, or nuance of French behaviour, or the author's own struggle in coping. At the end of each one is a recipe, either the one that Kathleen was struggling with, or one inspired by the events in the story. There are references to other chefs, the history of just what is le Cordon Bleu (hint, it has nothing at all to do with chicken), various cooking terms, and at the end of the book, there is a suggested reading list for more exploration for the curious reader.
Several sections of the book really touched me. One was learning that in France, a butcher would display rabbits with their heads still attached, as so to assure the purchaser that what they are getting is indeed rabbit -- and not cat. Needless to say, that was a little traumatic to read about. Another was having to endure the harsh critiques by the chefs -- including the opening chapter where a chef tells the narrator that she is wasting her time -- my heart ached for Kathleen, and it was so encouraging to see her own self-confidence and skills mature.
But most of all was when Kathleen meets Julia Child, and the marvelous conversations that she had with her. That hit me right to the heart, and I had to go find my partner and read to him those sections as they were so well written.
At the end of the story, I smiled, thinking of my own culinary escapades, and immensely cheered. For all of the conflict, and near misses, this is a very happy book to read -- Kathleen Flinn is one of those people who I would never mind meeting and sharing a meal with. Her personality shines through in the stories here, and her own strong will in being able to persevere through the worst criticisms is one that we need to read more about.
Most of all, it's about never being afraid to try something new, or try for your own dreams to come true. It's something that I feel that is really needed in our own, rather uncertain, times, and this book fulfills that need admirably.
Hands down, a four star read, and happily recommended.
The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laugher, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School
2007; Viking, The Penguin Group