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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

 

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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.

Want it? Click it.

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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