The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry is journalist Kathleen Flinn‘s account of her three years at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. After years as a highly competent “home cook” and work as a journalist and a high-powered corporate type, Flinn found herself in London and out of a job. Her sweetheart (who becomes her husband in the course of the book) encourages her to invest her life savings in her dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and training as a chef.
This book was gratifying on so many levels that its hard to know where to begin. First, I guess, is the fact that Flinn is a “real” writer, and writes beautifully in a voice that is warm, humorous and engaging. She also writes with great insight into the human condition – her own, family members’ and that of fellow students, teachers, and even landlords. We root for her relationship with her fiancee, we are aghast at the bad behavior of the instant-coffee pushing landlord, and we pump our mental fists in the air as Cordon Bleu students share ingredients to bail each other out before evaluations in class conducted by grumpy and hypercritical chefs. I found myself thinking that Flinn would be a good friend in “real life,” and if she isn’t, I just don’t want to know.
She also knows a great deal about food and cooking (obviously) and describes the origins, preparation and cultural significance of many dishes prepared in and out of class. There are also recipes, and I now have to buy a hard copy of the book so that I can create the stock, curry and French Onion Soup she so richly describes. (Among other things). Some of her recipes are available here, by the way. I learned about ingredients, French cooking in general, and about essential techniques from a Brunoise of vegetables to a fillet of fish or chicken. One of the most interesting ideas expressed by Ms. Flinn is that haute cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu is not, like home cooking, about creativity and improvisation; it is about cooking to tolerances with identical, predictable results.
The book is also about Paris (which is described in a loving, evocative, honest way) and its about living as an expatriate, about love and marriage, family dynamics, and daring to do the thing you have always said you would do, if only you could. Kathleen Flinn did that thing, and I hope you enjoy her adventures in Paris as much as I did.