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Kathleen Flinn: Sharpen Your Knife, Cook Fearless




As a child growing up in Michigan, Kathleen Flinn often fantasized about pursuing a culinary career. While most children were watching cartoons, she was watching reruns of Julia Child on PBS. As a teenager, she hosted dinner parties with menus pulled from the pages of Gourmet Magazine. One glimpse at her expanding library of cookbooks and it was easy to see Flinn had an affinity for food.

It wasn't until the mid-'90s when she began writing obituaries at the Sarasota Herald Tribune that her journey toward a career in food began to take shape.

One day at her desk, Flinn came across what she refers to as "the shortest obit I've ever seen." It contained a woman's name, age, date of death and the identify of her late husband. No mention of education, career or even a hobby. She began to question her own inevitable obituary. What would it say?

An advertisement on the back of the Gourmet Magazine at her desk caught her eye: "Study French cuisine in Paris.''

"At that moment, I decided one day my obituary would say, 'She also earned a degree from Cordon Bleu in Paris'," Flinn says.

She displayed those two clippings from the newspaper and the magazine at every job she held over the next 14 years as a source of inspiration.

When she found herself unemployed from her job as a senior content manager at MSN.co.uk in London she decided to take the plunge. She cashed in her savings, moved to Paris with her boyfriend/now husband, Mike, and pursued a culinary education from the school she dreamed about for more than a decade.

She earned her diploma from Le Cordon Bleu in 2005 and chronicled the experience in her first book, "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School."

When the school asked her to speak at its commencement ceremony in 2008, she began to question what kind of advice she could offer to the graduating class when she had yet to use her own degree. The self examination that followed eventually lead her to the impetus for her second book.

From Paris To Seattle

Weeks after returning from Paris, she came across a mother and daughter shopping at the grocery store in Seattle. Their cart was full of processed, pre-packaged and frozen food.

Flinn was reminded of her husband, the son of an Air Force father and a mother who stocked her pantry with shelf-stable food from the base.

"I remember thinking, 'How did we get to be a nation that eats out of boxes and is there anything we can do about that?' " Flinn recalls.

That question propelled her to lay the ground work for her second book, "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How A Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks," released in 2011 and the recipient of a 2012 Writing Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for Best Memoir/Autobiography.

Flinn chronicles the transformation of nine Washington women, ranging in age from 22 to 61, in need of a culinary intervention.

She entered their homes, examined their fridges, freezers and cabinets and interviewed them on their cooking experiences. After conducting her research, she discovered they all shared a common thread -- a lack of confidence in the kitchen.

They also shared a common misconception of time poverty -- there's not enough time in the day to cook, so it's easier to rely on convenience foods. We may think we don't have time, but that's rarely the case for most people, according to Flinn.

"When you get more experience in cooking, it doesn't take as long," Flinn says.

Over the course of 10 weeks Flinn rented a commercial kitchen and taught the women basic skills necessary to tackle almost any recipe they encounter. They learned how to sauté, to utilize an entire chicken, to use cheap cuts of meat for braising, how to budget their grocery list and, most importantly, how to properly use a knife.

"It's the number one thing people should learn to do," Flinn advises.

Good knife skills not only save you time at the cutting board, they keep you from cutting yourself. She suggests studying the instructional videos on her website, or checking with your local grocery store to see if they offer knife classes.

If you can't or don't cook consider this: You're putting yourself at the mercy of corporations to feed you, according to Flinn.

"As a general rule, their interests are profit-driven," she says. "I have no problem with companies making money, but they don't care how healthy the food is."

From Seattle To Anna Maria

To counteract the constant barrage of advertisements aimed at feeding people quickly and cheaply, Flinn plans to launch a new website -- CookFearless -- that teaches people the value of home cooking and nutrition.

Her third book, currently titled "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Culinary Childhood in the Wilds of the American Midwest," is expected to be released in the spring of 2014.

It will focus on her early upbringing in Michigan, the various European origins of her relatives, her family's relocation to Anna Maria Island in 1978 during her father's battle with cancer and his death when she was 13 years old.

Although college and job opportunities drew her away from the Manatee County area for the last two decades, she continues to return from Seattle to her second home on Anna Maria Island for months at a time.

Her favorite thing about coming back to Anna Maria? She knows there'll be plenty of great local food to eat.

"There are hardly any chain restaurants," she says. "I love that."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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