Sunday, November 6, 2011

Confidence in the Kitchen: Kat Flinn's Kitchen Counter Cooking School

When I heard Kathleen (Kat) Flinn was working on her second book I was very excited. Her first book, The Sharper Your Knife The Less You Cry, moved me to tears and made me laugh as I read over her astute descriptions of Paris and school at Le Cordon Bleu. After finishing Sharper I was hungry for more of her work. I had connected with her emotionally from reading Sharper at a time when I was particularly vulnerable to missing Paris, having returned from my semester abroad just the year before. Whatever she would be offering next, I knew I would be reading. What I found is a great book that tells a good story, teaches basic kitchen skills and above all encourages fearlessness in the kitchen, just as Julia Child would.

After completing her degree at Le Cordon Bleu, Flinn kept hearing the same question over and over: "Where is your restaurant?" At a few points throughout the book Flinn mentions being in the "foodie bubble-" a place where people can mention somewhat obscure foods (namely, ramps) and be understood by fellow members of the bubble. When I read that people asked repeatedly about restaurant work I found myself, a foodie bubble member, wondering why? In this day and age when the food industry extends so far beyond restaurants, why would so many people still think finishing culinary school equals a restaurant career? 

In The Kitchen Counter Cooking School we see one of the many paths that can start with culinary school. We begin with a little grocery store voyeurism. On a shopping trip at the grocery store Flinn spots a cart full of packaged foods- pasta sides, ready-to-make rice and jars of gravy without any unprocessed, whole food in sight. After finding the owner of the cart, Flinn offers some advice and to take the shopper around the store showing her some kitchen basics that would replace some of her packaged foods. Flinn even buys the woman a copy of her book and makes margin notes on the recipes for her to keep and use at home. The woman is receptive, and grateful, and the experience stays with Kat. 

We're then brought back to Paris with Kathleen and her loving husband Mike (for real, you will love their relationship even more after reading this book) who are giving a AAA tour of Paris and a graduation speech at Le Cordon Bleu. Due to the loss of Mike's beloved father, Flinn didn't have time to get a copy of her speech to LCB to be translated into French. After an emotional few weeks, staring at the newly graduated class, Flinn let it roll and posed thought-provoking questions to the audience. "Consider for a moment what success looks like when passion enters the equation. Is it money? Is it fame? Or is it having the strength to follow that passion. To have the will to go down a path you never thought you'd venture?" Following the speech they spend a great two weeks giving their tour of Paris, largely based on places in Sharper, then ate and ate filling up on all the greatness Paris offers. Their trip ends with Kat teaching a knife demo at WHSmith, the popular English-language bookstore in Paris that sees book events from many favorite authors. The demonstration, which Flinn thought might be too "remedial," charmed and enlightened the students and finally got Flinn thinking about serious teaching. 

The idea for the Kitchen Counter Cooking School quickly comes together and Flinn finds herself with 9 volunteers who allow her to come into their homes to evaluate how they eat, then commit to coming to her cooking classes to learn basic skills and how to change some of their cooking and eating habits. The 9 volunteers all happen to be women but are from a variety of backgrounds and a range of ages all with different cooking habits and issues. After spending time in the home kitchens of each of the women Kat develops class topics and sets up kitchen helpers and guests chefs to teach with her. 

The book follows Kat's classes and the progress of her students. She starts with the basics and gets more involved as the classes continue, giving recipes for the dishes made in class at the end of each section. The first lesson covers the most basic and important lesson for cooking: knife skills. Some of the students learn the cuts Flinn teaches in class quickly, while others never seem to want to change old habits; everyone leaves the first class excited and inspired. Many went out and got a knife that felt right for them to hold and then began using their new knives in class from then on. One of the lessons, the tasting lesson, becomes a regular exercise at the start of every class. At the first tasting session Flinn offers a variety of things to taste with up to 10 varieties of each: salt, canned tomatoes, olive oils, cheese, etc. The tastings are very eye-opening and after the first one each class begins with a tasting of one item from a variety of brands/sources. Naturally, the tasting class is followed by recipes for "Flavor Splashes" that are used to flavor anything from vegetables to meats to pasta dishes. Since flavor, or a lack thereof, is a big reason people might not enjoy cooking at home, this is a great list for any home cook to have as a reference (pages 89-90). Other topics throughout the book include preparing a whole chicken- from roasting whole with different flavor profiles to being able to butcher it at home, baking breads, braising and working with beef, eggs, salads and vinaigrettes, fish, soups and using leftovers. 

The classes are so fun to read through and enlightening to see how everyone progresses through the cooking obstacles they've always faced. While reading the book, mostly on the subway, at lunch time and at night before bed, I found myself wanting to jump into the kitchen ASAP to try out some of the techniques I was learning and re-learning. Also, the recipes are all straight-forward and sound delicious. The book is narrative, but it is definitely a great reference, too. If you plan on reading it I suggest you buy a copy and read with pen and sticky flags in hand to mark the techniques you want to try and make notes as you get inspired-- then get cooking! My first task will be to finally roast my own chicken and make my own stock.

Flinn doesn't disappoint at the end either; she follows up with the volunteers after a few months to see how what they got out of the lessons. Everyone has something that really stuck with them from the classes. Oftentimes Kat was surprised to see the influence the lessons had on the students that she hadn't noticed during the class. In all, the whole process is so inspiring to read and learn from. If you are a beginning cook or have been cooking at home for decades, you will find plenty of value in this book. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend Kat's book release party/event in New York on October 4th. Kat invited Pam Anderson, author of How To Cook Without A Book and one of writers of Three Many Cooks, and Lauren Shockey, author of Four Kitchens (remember her from the Freerange Reads event? Also, look for a post on her book coming soon to The CL) to join her in a discussion about home cooking at The Institute of Culinary Education. The event was complete with snacks from the book, wine, and easy discussion about why we do what we do in the kitchen. Lauren gave great insights on the differences between restaurant cooking and home cooking- finding home cooking to be satisfying in a way restaurant cooking can't be; at home you get to see your guests responses to the food you have prepared. Pam recalled the way our mothers or grandmothers may have cooked-- buying based on whats in season, on sale and using what they have to create a meal. They didn't get hung up on a recipe and getting things just right, cooking had a natural sense to it. One of the things she mentioned during the discussion that stuck with me is the idea of using up what she calls all the little "orphans" in the fridge. Taking all those little scraps and leftover bits from meals that we all have and incorporating them into our meals. As Pam likes to say (and her daughter Maggy, who was in attendance attested to her implementation of this philosophy) "It's fine" (with the quick wave of a hand which both Pam and Maggy did simultaneously at the event). 

We also discussed the importance of understanding imperfection. Kat brought up a blog post that Monica Bhide, a seasoned cookbook author, had posted over the weekend that was titled: "I am a failure." She makes a noodles and shrimp dish that is just flavorless and unappetizing, but forgives herself, because sometimes things just don't work out in the kitchen. It is an important lesson we should all learn. Sometimes we make things that are just no good, but its no reason to not cook. We must allow ourselves permission to fail from time to time. 

Both the book and the event were great and inspiring. I hope you have a chance to read The Kitchen Counter Cooking School for yourself and learn something new, or look at the way you've always done something a little differently. And, as Julia Child taught us all, remember to cook without fear! 
Read Kat Flinn's Blog: Kathleen Flinn
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Find her books on IndieBound!: Kat Flinn's Books

1 comment:

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