No matter how good of a cook you are, there is always something to learn. Kathleen Flinn graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (in case you too wondered how the school got its name….here you go) and struggled with her role as a chef. She gravitated towards writing and helping others become more confident in the kitchen which culminated in The Kitchen Counter Cooking School. Her cooking school experiment started when she couldn’t help but notice a woman in the grocery store choosing all processed foods, and walking through the grocery store with her to show her what to buy to make the basic dishes processed foods emulate with far less money. From that she started her experiment with nine women (the one man recruited ended up dropping out). Flinn began by going into each cook’s kitchen, surveying their fridge, freezer, and pantry, eating a meal prepared by them and listening to the large personal roadblocks that kept them from success in the kitchen. The women’s problems are incredibly varied, from lack of time, negative reinforcement from spouses and family, kids who only like certain foods, and sudden changes of work circumstances, but every person was mostly held back by a lack of confidence.
Once you know how to cook the basics, it’s hard to remember what it was like when such simple dishes were still mysteries. I grew up with a myriad of bottled salad dressings on our fridge door, which was not for a lack of healthful eating (I’m still pretty sure my mom is made of salad, not blood and bones). It was just what was, and I can’t remember when I had the moment where I learned how to make salad dressing, but it was what spurred my interest in replacing the processed foods I purchased with a homemade alternative. From there I went on to make bread, cheese, pasta, tomato sauce, pickles, ketchup, ice cream, stock, salsa, and a number of other simple items. I don’t make all of these items all the time, but even making them once gives you such a better understanding of what really should go in a product, and makes you a more informed purchaser.
Whether you are a beginner or Jacques Pepin, there are many lessons to absorb from Flinn’s book. As a new cook it is comforting to hear the setbacks other new cooks have faced, and the incremental lessons that provide a knowledge base to feed oneself. Flinn does a great job of incorporating much of the content of the lessons she provided, and includes insights from the students for a beginner to absorb. For anyone interested in teaching others to cook, Flinn lays out a great set of lessons for teaching the basics.
Besides a lack of the basic knowledge and lack of confidence that kept most of the cooks from success in the kitchen, the main kitchen issue brought up was food waste. Many participants stopped at big box stores or purchased in larger quantities because it was cheaper per unit, but ended up throwing out a lot of food (especially produce), because they couldn’t use it. Flinn emphasizes that food wasted costs more than food used, so buying something large that you throw out a large percent of is ultimately far more expensive than the smaller product that is more expensive per pound that you use in entirety. The suggestions were to evaluate your fridge weekly and have a basic set of recipes that are easily adapted to use up leftovers, like making a big pot of soup, a salad, or a frittata. This is something I struggle with especially during the summer when all produce looks so good and I just want to cook with everything. Or when I plan out a meal for every night of the week, not accounting for more leftovers than I planned for or extra ingredients from a recipe that need to be used up as well. Not all of the kale can go into breakfasts, so I’m trying to be better about leaving a meal unplanned to leave room for using up everything.
My hope is that every person has the knowledge to cook themselves a basic meal. Eggs and toast can become breakfast; lettuce, oil and vinegar – lunch; and beans and rice – dinner. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School provides background on why many people may be reluctant to enter the kitchen, and an excellent overview of basic lessons that can take them from instant mashed potatoes to gratins. I especially liked the end where Flinn revisits the students to see their kitchens post classes, share another meal with them, and hear about what they took away from the lessons. She accepts that she can’t expect to change every aspect of each student’s eating habits, but instilled the confidence that everyone was lacking.