INTERVIEW: A Conversation About Home Cooking with Kathleen Flinn
One day, in her local grocery store, Kathleen Flinn started following a woman who had loaded up her shopping cart with a variety of processed foods. She struck up a conversation with the woman, and discovered that the woman simply did not have the basic know-how to cook from scratch at home. Flinn, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, offered the woman a tour of the grocery store and some basic instruction on ingredients to buy and how to use them.
That experience led Flinn to invite a group of nine kitchen novices to take part in a series of basic cooking lessons to strengthen their skills in the kitchen, improve their choices at the grocery store, and help them do a better job of planning meals made at home. Today, Flinn's latest book, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is finally available, and it tells the story of this culinary journey.
It's an engaging read, and includes not only the story of how Kathleen (with the help of some of her chef friends) helped guide the group of fearful or inexperienced cooks through basic cooking lessons, but also a set of basic recipes that any cook should have in their repertoire. Learn more about the book in this video:
I had the opportunity to ask Flinn some questions about the book, her thoughts on cooking, and her tips for facilitating more at-home meals, even when time is tight.
What do you love most about cooking?
I love the creative aspect of cooking, especially after taxing my brain all day doing other things.
What do you love most about teaching others how to cook?
I love to see that moment of “aha!” on a specific technique when someone suddenly gets it. I also love that by teaching, I’m always learning something.
What surprised you the most about the group of students you taught?
That they were brave enough to let a stranger come into their homes, poke around their kitchens and share so much of their lives. I’m eternally grateful to them.
Have you stayed in touch with the students? Though I know you gave a round-up of how they're doing at the end of the book, how are they all doing now?
Yes, I keep in touch with several. I’ve been impressed at how lasting the results were from the project, at least from those with whom I’m still in touch a couple years later.
What are some of your favorite techniques for reducing food waste in your own home kitchen?
Here’s one suggestion. For two weeks, mark all of your food in a fridge with sticky notes with the price of each item. When you throw anything away, collect the notes. You’ll be surprised how much it adds up. You might throw away a head of lettuce and some vegetables with a slight wince and a shrug of regret. But how would you react to tossing a five- or ten-dollar bill in the trash? In a nation of plenty, we have plenty to learn about how to shop and how to cook to use up our leftovers to avoid waste. One thing this experiment usually teaches people is that rather than stocking up, they’re better off shopping more frequently and buying less. It takes a little more time but saves money in the long run.
What are your favorite quick and easy (but home-cooked!) weeknight meals?
I believe in the power of a good pantry. I always keep garlic, onions, celery, carrots and chicken or vegetable stock around. I feel lost without a basil plant on my kitchen window. I keep around various kinds of whole wheat pasta, fast-cooking brown rice, good canned tomatoes, cans of various colored beans (white beans are the household favorite), tinned local clams, frozen wild shrimp and scallops, dried mushrooms, ingredients for curry sauces, anchovies and small doses of high-quality, fresh spices and a couple of kinds of cheese. We keep frozen vegetables and whole wheat tortillas in the freezer. Among those items, I can make a host of quick dinners, such as a Thai vegetable curry, a shrimp and veggie stir-fry, simple pasta dishes or even burritos. Plus, there’s always a simple omelet and a glass of wine.
I loved reading your description of your anniversary trip to Italy with Mike. Are there other culinary destinations on your wish list to travel to together?
Mike loves Thai food, so I think our next trip will likely take us there. I’d love to spend some time learning to cook authentic Thai cuisine.
What is the one thing you wish every American knew about cooking?
That cooking is important. We’ve elevated eating into a series of “experiences,” forgetting that it’s about nourishing yourself and the people around you.
Obviously the book focused on teaching adults to cook, but do you have any recommendations for parents who want to make sure their kids grow up comfortably in the kitchen?
Sure. It’s simple. Cook. If you’re not confident, learn some more skills to pick up your comfort level in the kitchen. Encourage them to taste, make meals a priority. I taught my goddaughter to use a chef’s knife when she was eight-years-old and made her an active participant in the kitchen. By the time she graduated from high school, she was an excellent cook.
Time is obviously a huge factor for a lot of people, and i seems like a huge percentage of Americans haven't gotten the message that a good, home-cooked meal doesn't have to take a long time. What do you think it will take to change that?
I’m not the first one to say this, but I think we need to collectively agree that modern societies don’ necessarily have an eating problem, but a cooking problem. There has to be a realization that if you can’t cook, or you don’t cook, you leave yourself at the mercy of companies to feed you, and with a few exceptions, their interests are based on profits, not your health.
One of your top recommendations is that everyone get a good chef's knife (and I should note that I've stopped being lazy and throwing mine in the dishwasher since reading your book...thanks for the reminder that it's a bad idea!), and that they should work on their knife skills. Where do you recommend people go for knife skills lessons, particularly when budgets are tight? Are there any good resources online?
Absolutely! I’ve actually partnered with the Rouxbe Online Cooking School to offer a package of lessons to act as a companion to the book so that readers can learn to sauté and roast right along with the volunteers in the book. As part of the mix, I convinced them to offer everyone access to a knife skills lesson. You can view it at http://kathleenflinn.com.
Obviously any author would love to have the widest possible audience, but if you could identify the most important group of people who need to read this book, who would that be?
I think there are two groups: one, those people who often lament that they either don’t know how to cook or don’t have time or confidence—and good cooks who get frustrated by the people around them who make less than ideal food choices for those reasons.
What are your top-three food-related reads, whether they're cookbooks, food memoirs, or any other type of food book?
I don’t know if I could quantify a top three! But along the themes of the new book, I heartily recommend Michael Ruhlman’s new book Ruhlman's Twenty and Virginia Willis’ terrific Basic to Brilliant, Y'all, plus Pam Anderson’s classic How to Cook Without a Book, all of which focus on cooking fundamentals.