Questions and Topics for Discussion
In 2003, Kathleen Flinn, a thirty-six-year-old American living in London, returned from vacation to find that her corporate job had been eliminated. Ignoring her mother’s concern that she get another job immediately or “never get hired anywhere ever again,” Flinn instead cleared out her savings and moved to Paris to pursue a dream—a diploma from the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is the touching account of Flinn’s transformation as she moves through the school’s intense program and falls deeply in love along the way. Through the story of her time at Le Cordon Bleu, Flinn offers a vibrant portrait of Paris, one in which the sights and sounds of the city’s street markets and purveyors come alive in rich detail. Interwoven throughout are more than two dozen recipes, many of the same recipes Flinn was instructed to master amid battles with demanding chefs, competitive classmates, and her “wretchedly inadequate” French.ABOUT KATHLEEN FLINN
Kathleen Flinn has been a writer and journalist for twenty years. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Smithsonian, USA Weekend, Playboy, Men’s Fitness, and Canada’s The Globe and Mail, among many other publications. She was the inaugural food and restaurants editor for Sidewalk.com, Microsoft’s series of city guides that later merged with Citysearch, and later went on to direct editorial coverage for MSN in the United Kingdom, based in London. She divides her time between Seattle, Washington, and Anna Maria Island, Florida.A CONVERSATION WITH KATHLEEN FLINN
Q. You share some intimate details in the book. How did you decide what was too private and what wasn’t? Has anyone disagreed with what you wrote about them or an event? Did anyone not want to be mentioned at all?
Most memoir writers will tell you that the hardest part of writing a memoir isn’t what to include, but what to leave out. I was a bit unprepared for it. During my journalism career, I never had to debate whether to include that I broke a bed with a lover in a story. (Mike wanted me to leave this out, but I felt like it said everything that needed to be said about our relationship, so I left it in.) An editor rejected an early draft of my book proposal, commenting that “the main character isn’t likable on the page.” Of course, that was me. I’d never thought of myself as a character that had to be developed. Shifting my thinking, I realized that I had to be brutally honest or I wouldn’t be a believable character. So I had to include stupid things I said or did, emotional reactions that I might be embarrassed by otherwise. That was sometimes tough.
As I was writing the book, I contacted many of my fellow students and let them read the sections I’d written about them. Everyone reacted differently. Some insisted that I use their real names, while others did not. Memory is fallible; a few remembered things differently. I tried hard to be fair and accurate with scenes, and to be sensitive to what I revealed about other people. After all, they unwittingly became characters in a public play for which they never auditioned.
Q. The French are known for being rude, and yet you went out of your way to show how you didn’t really experience that. Why do you think the French have that reputation?
Americans and French are notoriously monolingual, especially earlier generations. Language is a sense of pride in both cultures. I think that the French and Americans are like brothers or sisters who are so similar that they irritate one another. If an American were approached by someone from another country who just started asking questions in his or her native language, they’d be irritated. From both their perspectives, I think the cultural clash begins with “You’re in my country, speak my language!”
Q. Did you realize you were writing an inspirational book at the time?
Who thinks their life is inspirational when they’re living it? I was finished with school, back in the United States and writing every day in a windowless cubicle. I’d been writing for two months when I realized that by starting chapter one with the first day of school, I’d begun the story in the wrong place. So, in one day, I wrote the first chapter, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” Without that chapter, the story lacked the context of the short obituary, my father’s death, or my sister’s longing to attend the Sorbonne. It was not part of the original plan for the book, and once I wrote that, I realized that the book was not about cooking school, but about identity.
Q. How has Le Cordon Bleu responded to your book?
Everyone in their organization has been incredibly gracious. André Cointreau, the owner of Le Cordon Bleu, has even given the book as gifts. I was worried about their reaction, particularly since Le Cordon Bleu is not presented as a perfect place. I started to work on the book after I started Basic Cuisine and sold it while I was still in school. In a way, I felt like a culinary spy as I never told Le Cordon Bleu about the book while I was a student there. In October 2006, when I’d finished the manuscript, I flew to Paris and sat down with the lead administrators. They were nervous, thinking perhaps I’d written an exposé. But halfway through, one of them said, “Oh, it is love story!” Once they got that, they were on board.
Q. The day that you ran across the short obituary about the eighty-four-year-old woman seems like a signal moment to you. Why did it have such an impact?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but writing obituaries was one of best jobs that I’ve ever had. After all, it’s the only time that someone will ever laminate my work and put it in their Bible. Plus, let’s be honest, writing obits in Sarasota is a very busy job. The old saying was that old people lived in Miami, but their parents lived in Sarasota. That one stood out for its stark brevity, and honestly, it scared me. There I was, twenty-three-years-old with my life ahead of me—but that through inertia, fear, or simply bad luck, it was possible to come to life’s final tally with nothing to say. But later in the book, I comment that maybe that woman lived a contented, full life—just not one that could be easily summed up with a list of memberships or achievements. She had no survivors that the paper’s regimented form and guidelines would recognize, but perhaps she had a wealth of friends. Sometimes, it’s all in the way things get measured.
Q. How did your journalism background inform your actions while attending LCB?
In many ways, journalism school and culinary school are quite similar. They both teach fundamental skills and habits, but ultimately you learn through on-the-job training. Early in my career, I got in the habit to keep an ear out for good quotes, and an eye out for characters and telling details. I am a meticulous note taker. In school, I kept a journal covering everything from experiences in the kitchen to conversations that I had with fellow students. This background is what made me decide not to tell the school about the book. I wanted to be treated the same as everyone else because the reporter in me thought that would make a better story.
Q. There’s a black and white photo in the front of the book. Where and when was this photo taken?
My husband Mike took the photo in May 2004. I’m sitting at the kitchen window of our apartment on Rue Etienne Marcel. I’ve always liked that image. To me, it captures a moment in time. It was shortly before the end of Intermediate Cuisine, after I’d won over the Gray Chef, but before we were married. I remember looking out the window and marveling how much my life had changed in such a short time.
Q. Some of the most memorable scenes involve butchering meat and gruesome preparations. How has your reader response been to that aspect of cooking?
Some people react strongly. Learning to break down large pieces of meat, bone poultry, and work with small birds had a profound effect on me. At one point, I call myself a “monster.” I had been a vegetarian at one point in my life, and I found it all a grim process. This may explain why I went into so much detail about it in the book. It was a valuable lesson, one that made me respect meat and poultry in a way that I didn’t before I went to school. I wanted to share this with people to remind them what they’re eating—it’s easy to forget what you’re eating when it comes boneless and packaged in plastic. Right now, I’m in the process of buying a cow directly from an organic farmer. I want to reward people who treat animals well. I buy most of my beef from butchers I trust because I just don’t know what could be lurking in a supermarket steak anymore.
Q. You mention that LCB wasn’t what you imagined. What was the most surprising thing about that institution for you, besides the lack of a proper view of Paris?
Honestly what surprised me the most? The school has electric stoves, not gas.
Q. You’ve been writing about food for several years. Has the way you write about it changed since attending Le Cordon Bleu?
I learned two critical things—the language of the kitchen and the influence of technique. I can talk to chefs using their language, and that’s critical to writing about food in a more informed way. I also can look at a plate and understand what’s gone into it, the process behind it. I couldn’t do that as confidently before. I’ve learned some of the magician’s tricks.
Q. Have you kept in touch with your LCB classmates?
Yes, and hopefully that will be the subject of another book. I e-mail regularly with Lely and Sharon and spend time in L.A. with my good friend Karina (known in the book as Isabella). My friend Juliana, “Jovina” in the book, now lives in Chicago with her husband. In the end, he arrived safely home from Iraq. There are a few student friends who didn’t make it into the book, and I see them frequently, too.
Q. Food memoirs seem to be everywhere now. Why do you think people are so interested?
The famed seventeenth-century epicure Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” That statement is at the heart of all food memoirs. We all eat; it’s a universal experience. Yet, we all have different experiences, with our food habits and traditions defining our cultures and personalities. Most successful memoirs that deal with food use it as a metaphor or as a way to tell a larger story with a broad message. Also, so many people read cookbooks not necessarily to cook from, but for entertaining. Food memoirs seem like a logical extension of that.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThe book deals with a lot of memorable food moments. What scene stood out for you and why? What is the best meal you ever had? Is a great meal only about food? What else is involved?
Ultimately, Sharper is about more than food. The author stated in an interview that “while it’s about Paris and cooking, ultimately it’s a story about identity and defying convention.” How did the author’s identity change through the course of the book? Have you had a similar chance to defy convention? How did it turn out?
The city of Paris is a major character in the book. The city and the French in general play a peculiar role in the imagination of Americans. What are some of the perceptions Americans have of the city and the people? Did the author feed the stereotypes or try to dissuade common perceptions?
Normandy is a theme in the book, discussed in both the food and the World War II battle. Why do you think the author chose to draw this connection? What are some of the other themes in the book?
A short obituary had a great impact on the author. Thinking ahead to your own obit, how would you want it to read? If you could change your life, would you do so and in what way?
Le Cordon Bleu wasn’t what the author expected. Describe one of your dreams that had a disappointing reality.
The title of the book is taken from a French chef’s tip about chopping onions, but the author has described it as a metaphor for life. How do you interpret the title?
The author’s boyfriend puts his life on hold to allow her to follow her dreams at Le Cordon Bleu. Would you be willing to change your entire life for someone? What would you be willing to do for love? Have you ever had that opportunity?
The Gray Chef was hard on the author, but ultimately she realizes his criticism is for her benefit. Who is your hardest critic and have you ever had a chance to impress that person? How do you respond to criticism?
In Superior Cuisine, the author says she understands Margot because they have similar corporate backgrounds. However, once the author was out of the corporate environment, she viewed it differently and realized her values had shifted. How does environment change identity and values?
How did childhood affect the author’s desire to go to Le Cordon Bleu? Can you trace back events in your childhood that informed your career choice as an adult?