A review of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

Reviewed by Christine Jacques

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks
by Kathleen Flinn
ISBN-13: 978-0670023004, $26.95, Hardcover: 304 pages, Sept 2011

Confession: I need a passport to go to my kitchen. Cooking is a sort of alchemy, conducted in dark caves close to a sacred oak. To solve my sustenance problem I married a man who actually likes cooking, and gets concerned when I sidle up to the knife block.

In short, I’m a perfect candidate for Kathleen Flinn’s Kitchen Counter Cooking School: mystified by the culinary arts, willing to try, and anxious about wasting money and time. You see us every day in the supermarket, eying hunks of Parmesan with hope and confusion. Flinn found such a woman at her store, and guided her through an Alfredo sauce. “That’s it? Oh wow, I thought it was a lot more complicated,” said this unwitting guinea pig. Thus was born Flinn’s idea for the Kitchen Counter Top Cooking School: line up volunteers to learn the basics of cooking, with the goal of saving money and time, and eating better.

What, for a home cook, are the basics? Flinn trained at the Le Cordon Bleu, but most home cooks just want to make a good meal. So what’s a good meal? How much does the food industry influence our shopping, and our tastes? And how is Flinn going to supply all the necessities, including a professional kitchen, for nine volunteers?

These are good questions, and Flinn does them all justice with humor and keen insight. She interviewed volunteers and experts, and got to it. It pays to be a food writer, with chef friends in restaurants all over Seattle. Lessons opened with a taste test to demonstrate how the variety within one category of food. Every taste test was a revelation. The most expensive canned tomatoes were not the Best in Show. Salt substitute really is a subsitute, and a poor one. The real lesson: Trust your tastes.

Trust may be the hardest lesson, with the advent of cooking shows. As Flinn notes, it’s hard to communicate taste on television. Viewers too quickly attribute Expert status to a toque on the television. Flinn’s students got over it with lectures sauteing, braising and learning how to hold a knife, how to buy and care for a knife, and that you don’t need every blade in the catalog. One year later, Flinn’s students were using every lesson they learned in school, and one had become a Master Canner.

Greatest Eye-Opener: What’s in the Box?, examining just what’s in a mix. Compare the ingredients for a scratch-baked cake with a mix, listed by quantity. Flour is the first ingredient for a scratch-baked cake, and sugar is number one for a mix. Then comes enriched flour, soybean oil, and food colors not found in nature. Over the years, mixes have subtly changed tastes toward the processed product, and emphasized that we don’t have time for cooking. Revelation: it takes the same amount of time to bake a cake from scratch, as it does for a mix. Who knew? The food industry did. The more we eat, the more we buy. “I used to think that the stuff in a box was something you couldn’t make. Now I know that they all just mimic real foods, so if it’s in a box, there’s a way to make it for real,” says one student. Chalk one up for Flinn.

The best-known expert of them all, Julia Child, surely did not want food to be the province of the elect. Flinn’s book will go a long way to demystifying the basics for culinary acolytes. Aux cuisines, citoyens!

About the reviewer: Christine Jacques lives in Colorado. Literature is her first love, but her husband is a close second.