The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

“Standing on the stage delivering the graduation speech at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is not the optimal time for an existential crisis.”

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So begins The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, a sequel, of sorts, to The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, a memoir of sorts from award-winning writer Kathleen Flinn. Whereas Flinn’s first book tells her tale of earning a diploma from the world’s most famous cooking school, her second commences two years after she’s left the hallowed halls and kitchens of Paris for home in Seattle. Yet in the opening pages of this book, she’s back, standing in an opulent ballroom just off the Champs-Elysées, rows of graduates before her, a line of chefs in tall toques behind her. Everyone is waiting to hear what she has to say–including her, as she finds herself wondering what wisdom she can possibly impart to others when she still hasn’t decided what to do with her degree. The struggle to align one’s passion with one’s purpose is something each of us grapple with, and Flinn shares her story with characteristic honesty and humor. It wasn’t until after returning to everyday life in Seattle that the classically trained chef with a penchant for helping others found her way…or rather, that it found her. —Editors of Leite’s Culinaria

 

***

Normally, I do not stalk people in grocery stores.

I confess to the occasional practice of supermarket voyeurism. Who doesn’t sometimes notice the curious collections of fellow shoppers, then contemplate what this may reveal? What goes on in the home of a hunched, graying woman with 19 cans of cat food, iceberg lettuce, a family pack of steaks, and a copy of In Style magazine? Or an elegant man with a perfect manicure who lingers over the imported cheese counter, his cart filled with organic greens, expensive olives, and four bottles of champagne? Every grocery cart tells a story.

Late on an otherwise average Tuesday afternoon, a sight near the canned tuna stopped me dead in my tracks. The cart sat as if abandoned in the middle of the aisle. It contained two dozen haphazardly piled boxes of dehydrated mixes for pasta, casseroles, rice, and stuffing and dubious jars of gravy. Despite being half full, the cart contained no real food. As I stood contemplating its contents, a heavyset woman in her late thirties claimed the cart. Her preteen daughter twirled impatiently around her, quietly singing a Lady Gaga song under her breath.

Would it be wrong if I followed her to find out what else she might buy?

Small basket in hand, I trailed behind her to stealthily observe. I feigned interest in various items along the aisles as she stocked up on packaged waffles and pizza pretzel bites, a collection of frozen dinners, chicken potpies, and a family-size package of pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy.

By the time we hit the meat department, I suspected she was onto me. “Can you believe how expensive chicken breasts are these days? Crazy,” she said out loud, to no one in particular.

I seized the opportunity to say something. “Whole chickens are on sale,” I said. “Ninety-nine cents a pound, I think.”

She chuckled. “Thanks, but I would have no idea what to do with a whole chicken.”

It hit me. After a year deboning chickens and stuffing meat with other meats at a famous Paris cooking school, I had information this woman needed. For some reason, at that moment, I felt compelled to give it to her. “Come with me. I’ll get someone to show you how to cut up a chicken.”

“Ah, no, thanks,” she said. A reasonable response given that I was a complete stranger who had followed her or 20 minutes through the maze of grocery store aisles. Somehow I assured her that I was not trying to sell a time-share in front of the turkey kielbasa. We headed over to the butcher.  He stopped to show her how each cut was done. As he finished, he crackled fresh butcher paper around the pieces. He winked and passed her the freshly wrapped chicken. It landed heavy in her hand. She looked thoughtful. “What is it?” I asked.

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She looked around, leaned forward, and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “I don’t know what to do with the other parts of the chicken. I only know how to cook the breasts.” She shrugged, embarrassed. “But thanks for your help.”

As she pushed her cart away, her daughter in tow, I stopped her. I could not let this woman go without knowing what to do with the rest of her chicken.

For the next hour, I led her around the store, making notes in the margins and writing new recipes in the notepad that I always carry in my purse. We discussed why she bought so many boxes and cans. “When I make stuff from a box, it always turns out right,” she explained. She picked up one box of pasta, the kind that makes a side dish in a few minutes. I know that Alfredo sauce is made with cream, but I would have no idea how to make it.”

I spent a year in culinary school learning endless variations on cream sauce. I explained a simple technique—boil cream until it reduces and then extend it with a bit of the cloudy water left over from cooking pasta. “That’s it? Oh, wow, I thought it was a lot more complicated.” She agreed that if I wrote down the recipe, she’d give it a try. Out went the nine boxes, and in went two packages of pasta, a quart of cream, and a small wedge of Parmesan cheese—for roughly the same amount of money yet enough to make twice as many servings.

This result made her curious about what else we could replace from her cart. Real potatoes picked out by her daughter (along with a pink peeler) replaced the dehydrated variety. “I don’t mind boxed mashed potatoes” was not the sort of comment that crept into my usual conversations.  What intrigued me was that the woman I met felt that she was cooking. To her, opening a box and doing something with it was creating a meal. I disagree. Yet neither of us is right or wrong.

“You know, I can’t thank you enough for all this,” she said earnestly as we made our way to the checkout. “At first, I thought you were some crazy person. But this feels like Wonder Woman stopping to help fix a flat tire.” She and her daughter waved an enthusiastic good-bye.

That afternoon stayed with me. It awakened a curiosity that I hadn’t realized I had. Somehow, I knew this chance encounter was going to change my life.

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About Kathleen Flinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of the bestselling memoir The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. A writer for more than 20 years, Flinn has had her work published in more than three dozen publications, including the Chicago Sun-TimesThe Globe and Mail, and Waitrose Illustrated. Her current book, from which the above was excerpted, is The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices Into Fearless Home Cooks, which was awarded the 2012 Best Non-Fiction Memoir/Autobiography from the American Society of Journalists & Authors.

Comments
Comments
  1. Sofia says:

    As soon as I finished reading this story I went onto my amazon account and ordered Kathleen Finn’s book. I just had to. I am no chef, no master in the kitchen, but DO love cooking and start everything from scratch. What I absolutely loved about this piece is how often I have found myself in the same situation, being a voyeur to other people’s shopping carts or sometimes following for a bit a person or two (ok, I confess.. more than just a few!). I now feel guilty never to have made that step and actually helping someone without their “consent” yet I feel the urge to doing so next time I go shopping. I have had situations where perhaps I was actually starring at a person looking at some “odd” vegetable and totally puzzled as what to do with is. My stare may have been so deep that the person finally turns to me and asks if I know what one could make out of it. I jump to the opportunity to help and suggest all types of things.

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Sofia, I seem to have the opposite problem at my grocery store. Shoppers take one look at my cart and ask me what I am going to do with it!

      • Sofia says:

        Beth, let’s not forget our geographic locations. I believe that may make a big difference in people’s shopping habits and demands. For example one of the local groceries I frequent laugh at the fact I shop there everyday saying most of their customers buy everything for a week while I go there on a daily basis depending on what I am in the mood to cook.

  2. Susan says:

    It was a wonderful service you did for that woman, but probably more so for her daughter. I didn’t know the first thing about cooking when I left home, but at least I came from a home where we ate real food so I think I was more inclined to want to learn to cook from real ingredients. My mother in law helped me at the kitchen counter enough so that cookbooks could educate me the rest of the way. A cookbook is not an easy read when you know nothing about cooking, much like a math textbook is to someone who doesn’t know basic math. I’m also not ashamed to say that the Food Network furthered my education. FN seems to be the whipping boy of food lovers these days, but it’s been the kitchen counter for many…and not a bad one, either. Food blogs have pushed me even more and I am thankful they exist as well. But someone needs to start this evolution and even a knowledgable stranger in a grocery store isle can help the helpless take the first step.

  3. Chiyo says:

    When I see things like guacamole in a vacuum-sealed bag or ready-made crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sold in a box (and people actually buying them), I realize how removed some people are from food preparation in a real sense. It kills me to think how much money they are wasting too. Maybe some people never had an opportunity to learn because their childhood meals always came out of boxes and cans. I have to say some shopping cart contents are more intriguing than others (yes, I do look sometimes!). Once I noticed this person with a cart full of frozen dinners and soda, and a hunk of fresh ginger root. “Huh, what an odd combination . . .” I thought, but was kind of relieved to see something real and healthful among a whole lot of factory food. I hope that shopper is still buying ginger, and a few more things in the produce section . . .

    • Lindsay Myers says:

      That ginger root sounds like an inspiring sign for the shopper, or at least an ambitious piece of produce in an otherwise pre-packaged cart. I loved this essay for the sentiment that it’s never too late to learn to cook (and not just frozen dinners!), and it sounds as though you felt the same way, Chiyo.

  4. Sita krishnaswamy says:

    I have to say I have found myself in a similar situation many a time. Often I have been dragged from my shopping to help a fellow shopper meal plan and scribble recipes on grocery lists. I remember once being stopped by a lady whom I know, looking at my cart and exclaiming, “You make your own salad? Why won’t you buy the prepared ones?” After explaining the economics and subtle nuances of taste, I had a convert who agreed to make her own and promised to make her own dressings once she mastered the art of spinning the lettuce and chopping the veggies. She went home with a bunch of greens, olives, cheese, and a salad spinner.

    I must also confess to following an odd shopper who had the most curious things in her cart. Managing a huge pediatric practice and with my husband who is always speaking about childhood obesity and healthy living, I am always watching people’s shopping habits.

    Often my cart is filled with weird vegetables what the locals here call “ethnic” vegetables. Yard long beans, bitter melon, winter melon, and okra are part of my grocery list, and I’ve also memorized their four digit codes so I do not hold people at the checkout. Often I give recipes to the checkout clerks, especially young ones who are willing to try something different,

    Like Beth I also get the question, “Gee what do u do with those? You eat healthy eh? Must be expensive.”

    “Not as expensive as buying medications,” is my answer.

  5. Amanda says:

    I’m guilty of wondering about other people’s cart contents on the odd occasion I go to the supermarket (or stupor market, as it is known in our house), but I’ve never followed anyone. I’ve often had to explain to the teenaged check-out chick what an unfamiliar vegetable is, though. Many thanks for this teaser – I’m off to amazon now, too!

  6. Every cart DOES tell a story. But some days I make a list of all the odd-n-end things I keep forgetting to pick up and then I make a special trip to the grocery just for them. I wonder what I’m telling the world when my cart contains Cliff Bars, cat litter, wine, a single russet potato and Old Spice all-purpose dude wash.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      And then there are those who REALLY worry ’bout what others think. When I worked at a national newspaper that shall remain unnamed, I once bumped into the health columnist at the grocery store. I honestly hadn’t even glanced at her cart when she started apologizing for what was in it. Sheesh.

  7. Sita krishnaswamy says:

    I downloaded the kindle version. Was too impatient to wait or the postman, thanks to the teaser. I am chuckling as I read. Thanks

  8. Shuku says:

    I’m late to this, having just read it, but oh, I am laughing quietly as I do. Because instead of following people around with their carts, people ask ME what to do with everything they pick off the shelves. I could be standing at the vegetables, and a lady will invariably pick something off the shelf (it was a parsnip once) and ask me, “What do you do with this?” These are total strangers, mind you. I’ve had the cashier at the counter look at my big stack of burdock roots and ask, “What do you do with this?” And I wind up explaining.

    I’m beginning to think there’s a label on my forehead that’s stamped ASK ME (rather than EAT ME or DRINK ME, like in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

    My best memory of this happening was last year, when my father and I were looking at cheeses. An elderly gentleman near us turned around and asked, “Are any of these low-sodium?” After some preliminary conversation (“No sir, I don’t think any of these are…”) I found out that he was trying to choose some cheese for his son, who had liver cancer and who wanted desperately to have some cheese despite his very restricted diet. I wound up taking him through the grocery store and showing him nutritional yeast, which tastes like cheese and doesn’t have the crazy high sodium count that normal cheese would. And talking him through various food choices that his son might be able to have (I’m gluten-intolerant, and I cook for a LOT of people with lots of allergies or food restrictions).

    I remember how happy he looked when he went off to pay for his purchases–as happy as the lady in the above grocery store excerpt.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Shuku, there must just be something about the way you carry yourself amongst those grocery aisles that tells people you know what you’re doing…fortunately for them! Although we have to ask, what DO you do with all that burdock?!

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