By AMY J. BARRY Special to The Day
In "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School," Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Kathleen Flinn takes the intimidation factor out of meal preparation and teaches her readers how to become "fearless home cooks."
Flinn, who is also the author of the bestselling memoir "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," engagingly describes how a chance encounter with a stranger in a supermarket (whose cart was loaded with processed, packaged foods), led to her teaching cooking fundamentals and supermarket strategies to nine volunteers lacking confidence in the kitchen. Flinn enlisted the aid of other culinary professionals in her quest to help the students - who varied widely in ages and backgrounds - cook food that's delicious, healthy, affordable, and better for the planet. Recipes are included in the book.
In a recent phone interview at the start of her national book tour, Flinn talked about what she hopes to achieve with the publication of this book.
Q. Can you discuss this idea of "time poverty" in our culture and how cooking, like exercise, is perceived as a chore?
A. There's a lot of marketing messages reinforcing the idea that cooking isn't a good use of your time - there are so many other things you could be doing instead. One of the considerations people have to make is, what's more important - nourishing themselves and their families and the people around them or watching TV or doing some other activities? There's a lot to be said for rethinking your priorities. Convenience food isn't such a time saver. How long are you waiting in the drive-through or for a pizza to arrive?
Q. Why do you say in the book that the Food Network/TV has transformed cooking into a spectator sport?
A. The celebrity chef phenomenon has actually jaded cooking - made it seem even more insurmountable for cooks. You go to see a magician, you clap, you don't try to go home and unwind the tricks, right? There is this mystique that surrounds cooking on TV. When Julia Child was cooking in the 1960s, people were still cooking. Now people have lost such a fundamental foundation of culinary knowledge that they can't keep up and can't follow it. What you end up with is this lack of kitchen confidence. People loved (the book) "Kitchen Confidential," but what they need to embrace is kitchen confidence.
Q. Why are so many people unmotivated or unsure of themselves in the kitchen?
A. Some of it is the classic path of least resistance. It's easy to go your whole life without cooking, but if you can't cook or you don't cook, and you get up in the morning and eat a pop tart and then go to Arby's for lunch, you put yourself at the mercy of companies to feed you, and their interests are primarily financial ? and when you're getting something in a box, ready to put in a microwave, are you really thinking about what's in this box?
Q. What did you find in common going through the nine volunteers' cupboards, fridges and freezers?
A. A lot of bulk buying, from warehouse stores, which surprised me - some of them are single. They'd buy in big quantities, thinking it was a better value and then not use it, so it's not really a good value. Especially if it's perishable. Also, with one exception, none of them planned their meals. It's one of the skills we've collectively lost as a society. People eat on an impulse basis, which is very different than generations ago.
Q. Can you discuss how you save money buying healthy, good, food? People often think they can't afford it.
A. The first thing people can do to save money on groceries is think about what they're throwing away. One thing I recommend that massively changes people's lives (including mine) is to put post-it notes on everything you buy with the prices. When you throw something away, it really adds up. It changed and challenged me as a cook. Also, fast food is not cheap. If you're spending eight bucks on a burger, fries and Coke, there's not much nutrients in that food, and when you buy things that are convenient, you're paying for that convenience. People have wild miscomprehensions about portion size when they talk about meat being really expensive. An appropriate serving of any protein is 4 ounces. People end up eating twice or three times as much and can save money buying (quality) meat and eating (smaller portions).
Q. What were the most interesting things YOU learned from doing this project and writing the book?
A. What I learned writing this book is how much I didn't know. I learned a lot about how much food I wasted, and I hadn't really thought hard about what was important to me - like where my beef came from - or enough about sustainable seafood. My buying decisions are different, and it taught me to question more. And I hope that's what people take away from the book: to ask questions and think about what they're eating and cooking.
IF YOU GO
Who: Kathleen Flinn, author of "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School," will give a talk and do a booksigning
Where: R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $5; the book from Viking is $26.95, hardcover.
To reserve a space: (203) 245-3959, ext. 14, or online www.rjjulia.com
More details: Flinn is offering a set of Rouxbe Cooking School's online cooking lessons as a companion to the lessons in her new book. For more information, visit www.kathleenflinn.com.