Take Charge of Your Kitchen
Kathleen Flinn was living the good life. She was a manager at Microsoft. She lived in London. She traveled. And yet sometimes she'd go to the bathroom at lunch and cry.
"They don't call them the golden handcuffs for nothing," says Flinn, 44. "It wasn't the right place for me. I was doing strategic budget analysis. Losing my job because I was reorganized out -- that was the best thing that ever happened to me."
When that happened, her long-distance boyfriend, Michael, encouraged her to pursue her secret dream to attend Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris. Michael, who is now her husband, joined her in Paris for the adventure, which Flinn recounts in her first memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.
"This actually all started because of a sad obituary," Flinn says. "It said 'Gladys Smith, 84, died at home. She was the wife of Harold Smith. No services, no survivors, no memberships, no donations.' I remember being 22 years old and being struck at how easy that could happen. I always wanted my obituary to say I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, and now it will."
Her obituary will say not only that she pursued her passion -- cooking -- but also that she's now turning other people on to that passion. Flinn's new memoir, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, details how a chance encounter at a supermarket led her in a new culinary direction.
Flinn was shopping at a gourmet grocery near her home in Seattle when she spied a woman filling up her cart with processed foods. After the woman caught her "supermarket voyeurism," Flinn convinced her to replace the packages with real whole foods. In the process, Flinn gave the woman a mini cooking lesson and introduced her to the store's butcher. Inspired by this meeting, Flinn transforms "nine culinary novices into fearless home cooks" in her new book.
Sipping a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in the lobby of The Iron Horse Hotel in Milwaukee, in between book signings and promotional appearances, Flinn talks about second acts and her new-found passion to inspire people to learn how to cook and take care of themselves.
SA: Do you often engage in supermarket stalking?
KF: This is the only time I've ever had good results. I've had a couple awkward moments. This woman talked to me first. What's really funny is every place I go I ask 'Do you look at other people's carts?' And they say, 'Well, of course.' You can tell a lot of things about a person and their culture and what they believe in by what they eat.
SA: What have you learned from your voyeuristic encounters?
KF: There's this foodie bubble, and I think more food writers need to spend time in the center aisles of grocery stores. There's this elevated way of looking at food, and the reality is the vast majority of people are in the center aisles. They're still selling a ton of Hamburger Helper. I wanted to understand how we became people who eat out of boxes.
SA: Why do we eat out of boxes so much?
KF: I know people who buy frozen veggies because they're cut up. The thing is, if you don't cook or can't cook, you have to rely on someone else to feed you, and most often, it's a big company. If you really want to make a statement, occupy your kitchen.
SA: What about all those popular cooking shows. Don't they teach people how to cook?
KF: Cooking has become a spectator sport, rather than learning to cook from your mother or a teacher or your father. Learning to cook is best when you can ask questions. That was what was really powerful about going to culinary school -- I got a lot of feedback. People have a lot of questions.
SA: What kinds of questions?
KF: The recipe says 'season to taste,' but what am I looking for? It says 'cook until done,' but what does 'done' look like? The best recipe writers walk you through it. What if you don't trust your taste? Maybe it doesn't taste good, but you don't know how to fix it. I've found that the people who lack confidence in the kitchen are the most enslaved to recipes. The flip side is how incredibly empowered people feel once they learn how to cook.
SA: So how can people learn to cook? Should they take cooking classes?
KF: People should check out Rouxbe Cooking School -- it's an online video cooking school. You can also get a free knife skills lesson from my website. It's a good way for people to pick up some fundamental skills. Or if you know someone who's a good cook, ask them to show you. Say 'I love that dish you make; would you be willing to show me how to make it?'
SA: What about the people who say, 'I don't have time to cook'?
KF: Often, it's a planning thing and people don't plan. I think there are times when you legitimately don't have time, like when you have a newborn or there's an illness. But the vast majority of people who say they don't have time actually do. Whether you spend that time cooking or spend it waiting for takeout or pizza delivery, that's time, too, and people need to take a step back and look at how they spend their time. The more time you spend cooking, the less you weigh and the less likely you will have health issues like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
SA: Where can people who want to change their eating and cooking habits start?
KF: Start to ask what's in the box? In my book, I have an example of a box of pasta that has 28 ingredients and is meant to replicate the taste of pasta tossed with olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Anything that has "helper" in it, help your self and try to figure it out. There are millions of recipes online. Start thinking things through. One other good place to start is to make soup because soup is really hard to screw up. It's really easy and it's great for kids who won't eat certain things. Often, kids who won't eat raw veggies will eat them when you cook them in soup.
SA: What's your advice for people who want to change careers or were laid off?
KF: First answer this: What have you always wanted to do that for whatever reason someone said you couldn't do, even if that someone was yourself? If you can afford to do it, try it, and if you fail, it's okay. Also, it's a pretty bad economy, but nobody is safe. If you have a good income, take your standard of living down and start to put money away if you can. Either the day will come when you're asked to leave, or you'll want to leave on your own.
SA: Any last words for novice cooks?
KF: Find someplace between Tuna Helper and Top Chef that is nourishing and as close to whole foods as your life allows.
Recipe: Blissfully Simple Chicken Stock
Flinn shares her recipe from The Kitchen Counter Cooking School:
Gather up all the bones from a roast chicken after you've wrested all possible use from the meat. Depending on how much water you add and how long it simmers, the yield will be six cups to three quarts.
Bones from 1 roast chicken
½ medium onion, quartered
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
Few sprigs of fresh thyme and/or parsley
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
4 to 5 quarts cold water
Put the chicken bones, onion, celery, carrot, fresh herbs, garlic clove and bay leaf into a 5-quart or larger pot. Add 4 to 5 quarts of cold water. Bring just to a boil and then turn the heat down until it simmers. Let it simmer for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. Skim any foam or fat from the top with a spoon. Drain it in a colander, mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter into a large bowl. Cool, then refrigerate or freeze until needed.
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