Kathleen Flinn – a 36-year-old American living and working in London – returns from vacation to discover she has been laid off. Instead of scrambling to find another job in the corporate field, Flinn decides instead to move to Paris and pursue her dream of obtaining a diploma from the famed cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu.
In a “Dear Diary” voice, complete with recipes, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, details Flinn’s one-year journey as she masters fragile puff pastries and learns not to wither under insults (“c’est horrible!”) screamed by renowned chefs serving as instructors. Cooking lessons interspersed with stories from her personal life (the man of her dreams leaves his job in Seattle to move in with her) are set against the backdrop of Paris.
The novel’s title was inspired by the explanation in class one day that using a sharp knife when cutting onions means one does not have to press as hard to slice, thus avoiding the release of onion skin oil that causes tears. Flinn uses it as a survival metaphor: stay focused and precise and everything should turn out OK.
She gives an insider’s look at the world-famous culinary school, which stands in stark contrast to the charming experience of Audrey Hepburn’s character in the 1954 movie “Sabrina.” In Flinn’s version, students get covered in fish guts, hoard the freshest ingredients, and are expected to master several recipes each day working at small cooking stations.
Throughout the book one may have a sneaking suspicion that Flinn decided to attend Le Cordon Bleu with the intent of writing a book about her classroom experience – she clearly emphasizes to those in her cooking class that she is unsure she wants to even become a chef and that she is a career journalist. (“Journalist” seems to be applied loosely here, one can only assume she means keeping a journal about her experience with some historic research thrown in.)
Flinn’s descriptions of the cooking process are often hard to follow and casual readers may be bored by the detail of the recipes she includes at the conclusion of each chapter. Further, many snapshots into the cooking school seem overly dramatic. She doesn’t hide her disgust that comes from deboning fish, decapitating rabbits, and cutting off the feet of ducks. And anyone who treats her rudely gets gently skewered and roasted by having his or her faults revealed to readers. Somehow, despite the earlier showers of insults, she emerges as a favorite student.
Yet Flinn adeptly captures the difficulties in achieving a chef’s standard, perfecting appearances of the dish without compromising its taste: A day’s work gets tossed out by one chef when Flinn forgets to warm her plate. And overall, the plot gives a fascinating look into the world of chefs and the various personalities that descend on the culinary institute – all driven by a love for cooking.
Those who relish the adventures to be found in food will undoubtedly enjoy this tale of a corporate middle manager who followed her heart into the heat of the kitchen and came out a triumphant graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.
– Mima Mohammed