By Marsha Fottler.
In 2003, when American Kathleen Flinn was 36 and had just lost her middle-management job in London, she weighed her options and then plunked down $26,500 to enter the full-diploma course at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. She’d been wanting to do it for 10 years but never had a good enough reason. Her book, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry,” is her diary of two years of learning and doing in a culinary environment that’s dangerous, exciting, humiliating, difficult and exacting but never boring.
At a pivotal point in her life, Flinn did what Julia Child had done at age 32 in that same cooking school in France in 1948. Child reinvented her life by surrendering to her passion for food. Like Julia Child, Flinn had been a talented eater up to that point. Now she was determined to be a talented cook. Her book contains 30 recipes that she learned to prepare in class and now passes on to readers with commentary.
Flinn cooked on an electric stove at the Cordon Bleu. Electric stoves have been used since the start of the school because electricity was the radical new thing back then and because electric is considered safer for the students today. Kitchen snobs who swear by a gas stove should take note. Cordon Bleu chefs use electric cooktops and ovens when teaching. While the scenes Flinn recreates in her classes (the chefs speak French and there’s an interpreter at the front of the class translating into English) have dramatic appeal, some of the best sections of the book recount the history of the famous cooking school. The Cordon Bleu school was born in 1895 as a promotional tool for a cooking magazine that began in 1890s under the leadership of Marthe Destel.
The magazine was La cuisiniere Cordon-bleu. Almost from the beginning, the cooking classes were more popular than the magazine, although the publication lasted until the 1960s. Andre Cointreau (yes, of the family that owns the orange-flavored liqueur and also Remy Martin cognac) bought the Cordon Bleu in the 1980s and completely modernized the school bringing in technology such as food processors. He also expanded and today there are 27 schools in 15 countries. But reading about shopping, living, cooking and pursuing romance in Paris is certainly one of the chief pleasures of this book. For food romantics the Cordon Bleu will always be linked to Paris. If you love cooking, food, culinary travel or a richly detailed tale about one person modern-day adventure inside a treasured old tradition, this book is tantalizing like a meal of canard a l’orange aux figues.
(The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn. Viking press, 2007, hard cover, $24.95)
Flavors and More Magazine – September 2009