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Photo by Roger SteenThe Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is Seattle author Kathleen Flinn’s brilliant memoir about attending the legendary culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. It provides a first-person, insider account of attending the famous institution, but what makes the book so interesting and readable is that Flinn is such a great writer and a likeable character telling her own story. The book gracefully balances the story of Le Cordon Bleu with Flinn’s Cinderella-like love story and enough delicious food to whet any appetite – and, fortunately, there’s a French recipe at the end of nearly every chapter.

In the classic 1954 film Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn’s character also attends the French institution (or so it’s presumed, but never explicitly named), and Flinn makes the hilarious comparison between Hollywood and her own story at Le Cordon Blue by writing in one of the funniest passages in her book, “[I]n a classroom kitchen with views of the Eiffel Tower, she learns to boil water the first day and crack an egg the next… Our learning curve feels a bit steeper.” A few pages later she notes, “Audrey Hepburn would never have ended up covered in fish guts.”

Kathleen Flinn will be appearing at Bumbershoot as part of a panel alongside local restaurateur and author Tom Douglas on Saturday, September 5 at noon on the Literary Arts Stage. She spoke with me by phone about her upcoming appearance at Bumbershoot, her memoir, her next book(s) and the big controversy amongst food bloggers in the summer of 2009.

You’re appearing at Bumbershoot with Tom Douglas this year, what do you have in store for the “F is for Food” panel?

We’re going to be talking about food, our favorite subject. I’m really excited about it, actually, because I love Tom Douglas and he’s a hero of mine, so it’s amazing to be on the same stage as him. We are actually going to be talking about subjects and themes that came up as part of the “Food for Thought” writing contest, sponsored by the Seattle Times. That actually ended up generating about 120 submissions and the quality was pretty impressive. There were a lot of great stories and themes, so we’ll be talking about that.

I really like Tom Douglas a lot, too. A few years ago, I had given my dad a signed copy of his cookbook, I Love Crab Cakes for Father’s Day and he really loved it.

Tom is such a prince. He’s a great guy, like a great big teddy bear – not to mention a great businessman and everything else.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience in any of his restaurants, either.

Oh no, they’re very consistent. My husband is kind of freaky for the doughnuts at the Dahlia Lounge, so we have to go there to get some every so often.

Your book is one of the first insider accounts of Le Cordon Bleu, was the school really supportive of the book?

I actually went to school and had no plans for what I was going to do there. I was a writer but I had never written a book, I thought when I went there that maybe I’d write a magazine story but I was there for about six weeks until I started forming the idea of writing a book. I worked on it and took notes and I sold it in between intermediate and superior cuisine, so when I went back to school after I got married, I felt like I was a bit of a culinary spy. I was sure they knew all about it, but it turns out they didn’t. I didn’t actually tell them I was working on the book until I was mostly finished with the manuscript. After I completed it, I flew back to Paris and I took the manuscript with me and went through it with the people at Le Cordon Bleu and they were really great. I think they were nervous because I had worked as a journalist and nervous about I was going to write but after about a third of the way through reading the manuscript and talking about it, the director at the time said [in the exact, exaggerated French accent I imagined when reading Flinn’s book] “eet is a love story, Mike is so fantastique! I love Mike!” and I think from that moment onward, they’ve been incredibly supportive. I can’t get over how gracious and amazing they’ve been, in terms of support for the book.

I’ve always been intrigued by Le Cordon Bleu, and I don’t think we really knew too much about the school, at least until your book came out, but I don’t think there’s anything in there that they would be unhappy with.

I think there were a couple comments around sanitation issues that maybe they wouldn’t have wanted to come out, but overall, my experience, and the experience of the people I talked to, was wonderful, so there really wasn’t a lot bad to write about. There’s not really a lot to hide.

We mentioned earlier that it is a love story, which had a narrative that held the story together. I know it’s a memoir and it’s your life, but I thought that was why I enjoyed your book so much.

The book is really about a number of things, definitely the love story is a big part of it. Because of my career, I convinced myself that I really didn’t have time for a relationship. I sort of put everything in my life except for my job on the back burner (pun intended, I suppose) and even though I had known Mike, he was right in front of me, and I didn’t appreciate who he was and what he would end up meaning to me at the time, because I was so blinded by the wrong set of priorities, which was my job. I think that’s pretty common for a lot of people. I think that experience of having my career and my focus taken away so then only thing I could focus on was my life, my actual life that it allowed me to open up to the possibility of what ended up becoming this incredible romance and the love of my life. We’re still married and we’re still happy; we just had our fifth wedding anniversary. I’m so thankful that he went to Paris because it was such a huge leap of faith for him to quit his job and rent out his house and put his life on hold. I’m very lucky.

I was drawn into your writing very, very recently. I think that Rebekah Denn mentioned on Twitter that you wrote the smartest item on the controversy surrounding the film Julie & Julia. I followed her link to your blog and that post really resonated with me, so almost immediately after that reading it, I sent an e-mail asking if you’d do this interview, and when I got off work, I went straight to a bookstore and bought The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.

I think that really struck a chord with me because when you write a memoir, you are unprepared for the fact that people will read it and have an opinion on it; it’s not having an opinion on a piece of fiction, it’s having an opinion on your life. It’s very easy to take it that if they don’t like it, they don’t like you. It can be very personal to think that it’s not that they don’t like your book; it’s you they don’t like. That can be hard enough but, particularly with the case of Julie Powell, there seemed like there was a growing public resentment against her. I felt like I wanted to weigh in as someone else who has had that experience of having my life exposed publicly and having to deal with that. I wanted to, not necessarily defend her, I don’t know that she necessarily needed defending; I think she’s pretty smart and capable on her own. I wanted people to think twice about what is it? Yeah, maybe she said she isn’t a blogger, but maybe she thinks she’s an author, and is there really anything wrong with that? I suppose I wanted people to take a pause and sort of remember that all writers are in this camp together and we should support each other rather than tearing each other down. I know it sounds sort of hippie-esque, but it’s true. Her memoir was really successful and that opened up a market for food memoirs, which made my book successful and will hopefully make someone else’s book more successful. I think people should keep that in mind and I think Julia (Child) would appreciate that. She always said you should stand by your convictions.

That point particularly struck a chord with me as a writer.

Yeah, I tried to be really empathetic because that could be anyone; that could be me. If I were lucky enough to have Nora Ephron make a movie about my book – but actually my book is being made into a movie for Lifetime. I felt like “Oh my gosh, I hope this doesn’t happen to me!” when my book is out on the screen.

I also chair the food writer section of IACP, International Association of Culinary Professionals, so I felt like it was my duty to remind everyone that we should be happy and caring. If you don’t like Julie Powell, that’s okay. Everyone should have their own opinion and that’s your right as an American, but I think karma is a really power thing and I think people should keep that in mind. [laughs]

It’s hard to write a book because you have to sit on your butt and write it; but it’s really hard to write a memoir because there are going to be aspects of your personality and vulnerabilities that come out and people are going to read them and make a judgment. They’re going to like you or they’re not going to like you. I think that’s okay. Some people don’t like my book and that’s alright because not everyone would like me if they met me. I think that’s okay because I don’t like every book I read, either. I just feeling the hostility, particularly online and thought it was important to comment on it.

What else or you working on right now? Are you writing the screenplay to the film based on your memoir?

I’m not actually writing the screenplay to that. I sold the film rights to it about a year ago to a production company. They are actually finishing the screenplay right now. It’s a very specialized skill, so I felt like I would be spending a lot of time figuring out that specialized skill; and my agent said “no, I think you should write another book”. So, I’m working with the screenwriter; I talk to him all the time. His name is John Ross and he’s based in LA and is a really great guy. The plan presently, and that can always change, is to shoot it in Paris and possibly on location at Le Cordon Bleu, depending on scheduling and actual physical space. I know the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is open to it, but we’ll see how it actually works out.

Meanwhile, I am actually working on [another] book. [It] is a follow-up to The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and it’s tentatively called Changing Courses. It’s about a project I started here in Seattle to find out why people don’t cook and to find out what you can teach people to overcome that reliance on processed, takeout and fast food. I’ve been a cooking teacher, very much like Julia Child, so it’s been a very great experience and remarkably educational.

It starts where the last one left off. It starts in Paris and may end in Paris, as well. It talks about what happened when I left the graduation and composed Thanksgiving at the end of the book. It really picks right up again but the bulk of it is about the project I’ve been doing here in Seattle for the past year or so. So that’s my second book.

That’s one project; I am busy with a lot of other things, too. I spend a lot of time working in my unpaid role as the chair of the food writers section (of the aforementioned IACP). It’s terrific, because I’ve met so many people and I’m now helping plan the conference for next year in Portland. It’s all very exciting and it’s great. I feel that even though it’s a time-consuming, volunteer position, I feel like I’m learning so much and getting so much out of it that it’s really worthwhile.

{Photo of Kathleen Flinn by Roger Steen.}