'The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry' At age 36, Kathleen Flinn packed her bags and headed for Paris where she enrolled at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. She talks about her journey, her experience becoming a chef, and her new memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry.
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'The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

At age 36, Kathleen Flinn had a pretty great life - an American on the corporate fast track in London - but she felt something was missing. And then, her life fell to pieces. She returned from vacation to learn that she'd been laid off. Well, instead of plunging into a job search or raising the white flag and heading back home, she followed the advice of her new boyfriend and took a chance to change her life.

She moved to Paris to enroll at the famous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, and wrote a book about her Parisian adventures called the "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry." She joins us in just a moment.

Later in the program, what's been gained and lost in the Genarlow Wilson case. His lawyer joins us later to take your calls.

But first, Kathleen Flinn is with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in, Kath.

Ms. KATHLEEN FLINN (Author, "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School"): Oh, thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: If you harbor dreams of earning a chef's toke or if you've ever wanted to or have been forced to change careers completely and start over, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

So I understand when the axe fell at your job, well, you called your boyfriend and he said to follow your childhood dream. You also called your mother.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. I did. My mother's advice was, I think, pretty typical, what a lot of parents would say which was, oh no, you have to get another job immediately or you'll never get hired anywhere ever again.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Those two words so precious to parents: health and dental.

Ms. FLINN: Yes. Exactly. Well, she had worked in the human resources for almost 20 years. So for her, I mean, it was even a bigger issue.

CONAN: But you decided to step off the cliff and move to Paris and squander your hard-earned reserves and spend it all in cooking school.

Ms. FLINN: I did. And it was really much because of Mike. I called him, it was 5 a.m. I was in London at the time and I had returned to London. And my boss' assistant then called me when I was in the airport and said, Kathleen, darling, do you mind meeting your boss in the hotel lobby next door? And, oh, don't come to the office. And I took that as a very bad sign.

CONAN: Not a good sign.

Ms. FLINN: And so, of course, they eliminated my job and I called Mike, woke him up and I told him what happened and I had said, well, I could go back to Seattle - where he lived - and get a job, and he said no. I think you should pack up your stuff and go to Seattle - or go to Paris because that's what you really want to do. You really want to study at the Le Cordon Bleu.

CONAN: And this is one of those astonishing moments, when your boyfriend actually remembered something you'd said.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. We had actually met in 1999, when I was first applying for a job in London. And we've been friends since, but we had had a conversation walking through Battersea Park. And he'd asked me, if you could do anything with your life, what would you do? And I said, well, I'll go to Paris. I would study at Le Cordon Bleu.

CONAN: So you wash up there, finally. You entered. It doesn't take as long as you think. You do get accepted. And, boy, is it different from what you imagine.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. It sure is. I was also lucky because when I had called Mike, he had said, you know, that he would come with me.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FLINN: Which I was really surprised. I didn't expect him to pick up and drive his whole life for a year to come with me to Paris, which he did. But I thought that Le Cordon Bleu would be very much like the 1954 film "Sabrina," with Audrey Hepburn. That it would be very glamorous, and somehow I would look like Audrey and be fabulous like her. And of course it wasn't like that at all.

CONAN: Yeah. The closest it got was a big poster of "Sabrina" that was there in the school.

Ms. FLINN: That's exactly right. And instead of it being very sort of glamorous, and fabulous, and chefs with Marie Chevalier accents saying things like whizzywizz(ph), humans use like this…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FLINN: …they were pretty tough.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. FLINN: And they didn't speak English in the kitchens. And my French, my college French, was pretty much non-existent, it turned out. Even though I could order in cafes and buy shoes, which I thought was really important - and I thought that was all he really needed in French until I went to culinary school. But the school itself is surprisingly unimpressive. It's not very big. It is a former medical clinic that was turned into a school, and they actually have electric stoves.

CONAN: Electric stoves.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. I thought that was very surprising because most professional kitchens use gas, but they thought it was safer.

CONAN: Some of them grumble that wood is the best, but…

Ms. FLINN: Well.

CONAN: …yeah, not on an industrial skill.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah.

CONAN: There was a realization at one point early on in, you know, there's basic - it's a little like the military basic training in a sense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FLINN: Yes.

CONAN: But you're in basic training and I think it was Mike, your then-boyfriend, who said, you know, you're being trained to be a replaceable part.

Ms. FLINN: That's exactly right. They - in a kitchen, I mean, it's just like in the military. You have to be able to do whatever duty is assigned to you, and that's why we had to be able to cut vegetables exactly the same way with the same precision and hit the same notes of flavor and whatever it was that we're creating. I think that there's this idea that being a chef is all about creation - creativity, and that's true. But for the people in the line who are executing whatever a chef's vision is…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FLINN: …they have to be interchangeable and be able to do whatever it is that heed back ends.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Kath Flinn, Kathleen Flinn. She's the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School."

If, like her, you've been either decided to or forced to adopt a career change in midlife, give us a call, particularly if that dream has always been to enter a great kitchen and learn how to cook: 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's get Matt(ph) on the line, Matt's with us from Endwell, New York.

MATT (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, there.

MATT: Love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

MATT: Several years ago, I was a business owner, and I've been doing that for quite sometime and got laid off. I transitioned to a couple of different jobs and then got laid off. And I got off of the Hobbit Trail. I was unemployed for a couple of years - enjoying that. And then I got a job out of the blue as a fleet manager, basically, it is my title. And I'm building hot rods.

CONAN: You're building hot rods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And is life as a 14-year-old is good as you think it would be?

MATT: No. It is. Yes. My boss is excellent. Well, a great boss, and known him for quite sometime and, you know, we both have a pretty good vision of what we want from each other, and it's working out great.

CONAN: And so, at the end of the day, do you scrub your hands with a very, what, Lava the hand soap, the pumice?

MATT: Or gasoline or anything to get the grease off. Yeah.

CONAN: Which is a far cry from the job you had earlier. Mike - excuse me - Matt, congratulations.

MATT: Yup. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

MATT: Bye.

CONAN: And did you feel that sort of liberation at any point when you - I mean, you're on the fast track.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. You know, and I actually think that I had started out with a job that I really liked. But then, I kept getting promoted and primarily because my boss kept getting promoted, and I went up on his coattails. And at first I had fun, creative jobs, and then I got to the point where I was managing the people who had the fun, creative jobs that I've had before. And I was the boss. So instead of going out with all my colleagues and complaining about the boss together at the pub, they were going out to the pub without me…

CONAN: To complain.

Ms. FLINN: …and complaining about me. So suddenly, my life really shifted a lot. But I always felt after I had started at Le Cordon Bleu - and it didn't take very long before I realized - that the best possible thing that ever could have happened to me was that I lost my job, because it was such a good job that I would never had quit. I would probably still be working there.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Dora(ph), Dora with us from Absecon in New Jersey.

DORA (Caller): Oh, yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hello. Go ahead, please.

DORA: I feel like this woman has stolen my story completely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FLINN: Sorry about that.

DORA: I also was laid off of a successful corporate job another - and like you said, I never would have left. But I was unhappy and, you know, I would be fitting - negotiating deals and doing great things for my company. And all I could think about was, you know, I could be at home right now, making soup or getting ready to have - to make - have a dinner party for a number of my friends.

So a couple years ago, I did just go ahead. And when I got laid off from my job, I took the big chance and went to culinary school. And now, I work for the culinary school where I graduated.

CONAN: Absecon is right by Atlantic City.

DORA: It is.

CONAN: And is that where the cooking school is?

DORA: Yes. It's in Mays Landing.

CONAN: Uh-huh. So to service all of the restaurants and the fancy hotels there in Atlantic City?

DORA: Correct.

CONAN: Uh-huh. And have you enjoyed it?

DORA: It is the best thing I ever did. The only thing I regret is that I waited so long to do it.

Ms. FLINN: Hmm.

CONAN: And thanks very much for that. And good luck to you, Dora.

DORA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Kathleen, I know that this is a story you've heard a lot.

Ms. FLINN: I have heard that a lot. It's interesting. I've been talking to people on my book tour. We've now been in 15 cities in about 20 days. And it's interesting how much people can relate - and particularly women. I think we are all programmed to please as we grow up.

And the idea that you have this job, it's - should I quit? Should I leave that security? Should I leave that comfort? But it's interesting that the women who do that and the - men as well, when they finally do make that break and they step forward, and they step off that - press this wall and they do it, I never hear anybody say, wow. I really regret having done that. The only thing I ever hear is I wish I hadn't waited so long.

CONAN: And particularly - obviously, they're relating to your story…

Ms. FLINN: Uh-huh.

CONAN: …but I think there is something about food that women, in particular, relate to. In fact, you say the majority of the students at - in your classes at Cordon Bleu were women.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. And I think that's a little unusual because I think at the Culinary Institute of America, I think the class makeup is a little different. I think it tends to be a little more male dominated. But I think that women like to use different parts of their brain and their hands. And I think that cooking allows you to do that. And we also like to please people, as I said. And there's nothing more satisfying than nourishing someone.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There's one student, in fact, you talked to rather late in your career in Cordon Bleu. And he says, you know, if I can feed somebody, I feel like a god.

Ms. FLINN: Yes. That's right. Yeah. He says, oh, it's true, you know, you are in this kitchen and when you set out, you are a slave, you are slave to the chef. That's - if people like what you eat, and then you're a god. And it's true. He had a big impact on me. He now lives in Asia. And he is, in fact, being a god and feeding people every night…

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. FLINN: …and loving it.

CONAN: And does he ask that his workers call him chef? He would not concede that point to the masters at Le Cordon Bleu?

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. That's interesting. He was the only person I knew who wasn't really afraid of the chefs, because we all were. I mean, chef means chief in French, and we all learned that very quickly. And he didn't. I don't know if he makes his own people call him chef or not.

CONAN: We'll find out.

Anyway, we're talking with Kathleen Flinn. Her book is "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School."

If you've ever spend anytime at the CIA or at Cordon Bleu, give us a call: 800-989-8255. You know what CIA meant.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Later this hour, Genarlow Wilson was ordered out of jail by the courts. Now, his attorney joins us to talk about his release, and take your calls.

But right now, Kathleen Flinn is our guest. She put her time in at Le Cordon Bleu on paper - in the book, "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry." She has included recipes with her story, and you could find some of them on our Web site and find out why you might not want to eat the skin on your roast duck…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …at npr.org/talk. You're also welcome to join the conversation. If you harbor dreams of running off to cooking school or if you ever wanted to: 800-989-8255. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And you could send us your comments and maybe your recipes too. Our blog is npr.org/blogofthenation.

And I guess we should ask you to explain the affair of the dropped duck.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. You know, there is an old story that says that Julia Child dropped a chicken on the floor when she was filming "The French Chef." And then - that, in fact, is not true. She just, you know, dropped some potatoes she was trying to flip in a pan. But I always wished it had been true, because I did in fact dropped an entire duck on the floor when I was at Le Cordon Bleu.

CONAN: And nobody was looking.

Ms. FLINN: Nobody was looking. Chef was out of the room, fortunately, although actually the other person looking was the person who was sharing the duck with me that day.

CONAN: Your partner. In other words…

Ms. FLINN: My partner.

CONAN: …she graded on your duck, too.

Ms. FLINN: Yes. She's this wonderful woman from Toronto. But I just picked the duck up and threw it back in the oven and never said a word to the chef who, fortunately, did not tried to eat the duck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FLINN: But I believe in the five second rule.

CONAN: You believe in…

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. But I did tell Mike not to eat the skin on the duck when we took it home.

CONAN: When you brought it. I was going to say, the other part about your job that was really interesting as you're student is your cooking up awful lot of food. What do you do with it?

Ms. FLINN: We mostly ate it. But there were some things that I didn't want to eat. And after a while, I just sort of got overwhelmed, I think. We sort of - we had a lot of meat, stuffed meat and lot of sauces, and you can only eat that stuff…

CONAN: A lot of sauces, where the default was add another stick of butter.

Ms. FLINN: Exactly. The butter ratio to anything was always alarming.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FLINN: Whatever that might be - whether it was potatoes, or cream, or whatever. And so I actually gave away some of my food to some of the homeless people on the street.

CONAN: You've described one as the smartest homeless man ever to live.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. I mean, you'd have to a very smart homeless man to set yourself up down the street from the Le Cordon Bleu. I just thought, I can't believe there weren't mobs of homeless people out there going after the food, because so many of the students wanted to give their food away because after they spent hours preparing it, they didn't necessarily always want to eat it.

CONAN: And at one point, after the chef had been critical about one of your sauces, you gave the hake to this homeless man, and he quibbled about your sauce too.

Ms. FLINN: He did. It was actually the strangest thing. And I wrote it - I remember thinking people are going to think I made this up. And I really didn't. He actually dipped his pinkie into my Ziploc bag. I mean, here I am at this glamorous school, I'm taking all my food home in Ziploc bags. But he dipped his finger and tasted the sauce and said he thought it needed more salt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FLINN: Great.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Dave, Dave's with us from Pensacola in Florida.

DAVE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

DAVE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVE: Yeah. I just wanted to say how, you know, when I was 27, I went and - quit a job that I've had for nine years, working my way up in retail grocery management. And then I joined the Navy. I've been in the Navy for 16 years, and I have four left until retirement. And I'm thinking of going to culinary school when I'm done with the Navy.

CONAN: I think everything in your career would be a perfect preparation for it so long as you weren't cooking in the Navy.

DAVE: No. Actually, I'm a corps man(ph), and currently right now, I'm in environmental health, actually, as a health inspector.

CONAN: Hmm.

DAVE: So I get to inspect all the restaurants and galleys and stuff all days.

CONAN: So, I'm just doing some mid-calculations. You would get out of the Navy somewhere near mid until late 40s?

DAVE: Correct.

CONAN: And would that be too late, Kathleen Flinn?

Ms. FLINN: I - nothing gets ever too late, I mean, especially if you look at something, you know, using these skills that you already have; I mean, understanding the essence of sanitation and so on.

DAVE: Correct.

Ms. FLINN: There are so many things you can do with a culinary degree. I mean, I think an automatic idea goes to the Food Network, or to people working in the restaurants. But it's surprising, the more I learn about the culinary industry and the food service industry, how many jobs there are - just things you never even would have thought of, you know, that just…

DAVE: One area where I thought of doing without going to school was getting out and being a consultant to all your mom-and-pop restaurants. You know, going in and inspecting them before the county or the state came in to inspect them…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVE: …so that they could give them the best rating possible.

Ms. FLINN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: That'd be a wise idea for them…

Ms. FLINN: Absolutely.

CONAN: …because they do fall down a lot on those points. Anyway, good luck to you, Dave. Thanks very much.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

I was interested in the - intrigued by the number of students in your school. Many of whom did not plan to go on to careers in the food business.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. That was interesting. There were a few people who would I - who were mid-shifters, like mid-career shifters like me. There are also a number of women there who were sort of referred to as Sabrina students. They were these beautiful women, who came from different countries, and their wealthy family sent them there so that they would learn about French food, and they'd study French, you know, language.

CONAN: Almost like a finishing school of some sort.

Ms. FLINN: Very much so. And I don't know that they necessarily plan to make French food, say, when they married. Well, but they could tell their cook what to make, so that's always quite nice. But…

CONAN: And you were there as a journalist. You want to write about food and, well, now you've written a book so - your self-fulfilling prophecy. But nevertheless, a lot of people were there to write it from that angle too.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. I met a - there's another gentleman who was there from Tokyo, and he was also a journalist. And his primary reason of going at Le Cordon Bleu is because he was a food journalist as well. And there were people who wanted to open cooking schools. There were others who wanted to go actually into the hotel industry and they…

CONAN: And be able to tell their chefs what to do.

Ms. FLINN: Exactly. So they were not necessarily there to learn to cook, but understanding what exemplified excellent cuisine. And that's what they were there for.

CONAN: And is - your - the degree, which you eventually did earn - I don't mean to give it away - at the…

Ms. FLINN: Spoiler alert.

CONAN: …Le Cordon Bleu, but does that qualify - could you now walk into any kitchen in New York or Washington, D.C. and slap your diploma down and said, I'd like a job, please?

Ms. FLINN: I could. I think they would probably start me in just where they would start somebody without a degree, probably.

CONAN: Slave?

Ms. FLINN: A slave, yeah. I would be a slave, and that's okay. Because I think you need to be a slave for a while in the kitchen. I mean, it - I think it's also one of those misunderstandings that I think people have in culinary school, that they watch the Food Network - and sure, Giada is fabulous and Bobby Flay is fabulous. But, you know, Bobby Flay quite started out as a slave too, and not everyone who gets out of culinary school ends up - in fact, very, very, very, very few people end up in those kinds of glamorous roles.

It's a lot like journalism school in that respect. I mean, I have a journalism degree. And even though I had glamorous internships, I still end up writing obituaries.

CONAN: But one of those turned out to be really important to you?

Ms. FLINN: That's right. I was actually working - writing obituaries in Sarasota, Florida, which is a very busy job, actually.

CONAN: God's waiting list as we're told...

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. Exactly. And I came across the shortest obituary that I had ever seen one day, and it said simply: Yda Smith(ph), 84, died Saturday at home. She was the wife of the late Herald Smith(ph). No survivors, no services, no directions for flowers or donations to give, any hints of any interest or hobbies. And she'd had no profession, no parent, education. And I remember at that time, being 22 and thinking what had this woman done with her life.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FLINN: And I wondered if she ever thought about that too. At the same time, there was a gourmet magazine open on my desk, and it was flipped open to an ad that said: Study French cuisine in Paris. And somehow, the convergence of those two otherwise not related ideas came to me, and I thought I want my own obituary to read, she also earned a degree from the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

And I cut out that obituary and I cut out that ad, and I put them up at my cubicle and I looked at them every day. And they were actually hanging in my cubicle at the job when I got - that was eliminated when I came back from London.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller on. This is Carrie(ph), Carrie's with us from Portland, Oregon.

CARRIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CARRIE: Well, we, 18 months ago, purchased what was going to be our dream job, and that was a food manufacturing company that distributes in the northwest. We make donuts.

CONAN: You make donuts.

CARRIE: Yes.

Ms. FLINN: Hmm.

CONAN: Well, that's something that everybody can get - just about everybody wants one. Whether they're going to actually eat one or not, that's another issue.

CARRIE: Exactly.

CONAN: What, you know, durance vile that you leave?

CARRIE: My husband was in one of those defining dead-end jobs. He was a gravedigger.

Ms. FLINN: Wow. I mean, that's a dead end.

CARRIE: Yes. And we planned this for quite a while and it was, and is - it's the hardest thing we've ever done and we still think it's the best thing we've ever done.

CONAN: Well, congratulations and good luck to you.

CARRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. Let's talk now with - this is Tracy(ph), Tracy's with us from St. Louis.

TRACY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

TRACY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TRACY: Yeah. I've been in the business for 20 plus years and transitioning into health care.

CONAN: And which business were you for 20 plus years?

TRACY: Restaurant business.

CONAN: You're in the restaurant business. In what end of the restaurant business?

TRACY: Mostly the front of the house, not so much culinary. But…

CONAN: And do you think that you made a wise decision? Do you have any regrets?

TRACY: Oh, not at all.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TRACY: I love it. The transition wasn't as surprising as I thought it would be because - and chefs hate it when I say this, but the restaurant business isn't as much about the food as it is about people.

CONAN: Hmm. Would you say he's right about that, Kat?

Ms. FLINN: Yeah, I would say. I think that's true at any hospitality industry.

CONAN: Hmm.

TRACY: The food either gets eaten or usually thrown out, like it's…

Ms. FLINN: Hmm.

TRACY: …it's more about the people.

Ms. FLINN: I think that's very true. When I was at my company just before I left, we had a big delight, the customer initiative - we're a software company. And the idea of delighting customers who you really never see or have very much contact with is pretty vague.

CONAN: Abstract, yeah.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah, it's abstract. And I think the difference in the restaurant industry is either the plates come back and the food is eaten and happily consumed, or they're not. It's very immediate. You know whether or not you're satisfying a customer.

TRACY: Yeah.

CONAN: Hmm.

TRACY: Yeah.

CONAN: Well, good luck, Tracy. Thanks.

TRACY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's a question from the blog. My question for your guest is whether or not she plans on becoming a professional chef. Now that she's finished her cooking school and book, is she at all worried that cooking for a job will take the element of personal touch out of the experience on something - once something is a job, it can quickly lose its luster. That's from Arianne(ph) in San Francisco.

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. I get that question a lot. I would not rule out necessarily becoming a chef, I mean, in using my training and so on. It's certainly something that I would like to prove to myself that I can do. But I think of myself first as a writer and a journalist, and writing a book is as much as of a dream as actually going to Le Cordon Bleu. And I feel that having been able to combine those two things together has been so extraordinary. But my plan now is to focus mostly in writing about food…

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. FLINN: …because, you know, working in a kitchen is really pretty tough.

CONAN: Kathleen Flinn learned that. She studied at the world's most famous cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. She wrote the book, "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail from Steve(ph) in Oklahoma. I'm a 1997 graduate of the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. In the last 10 years since I graduated, the industry has been glamorized to an almost ridiculous level by the Food Network and glamour chef shows. It's important to remember the culinary school industry is an industry and operates like one with the bottom line in mind.

The schools do not do a very good job of preparing the students for the reality of low wages, long hours and several years of working like a dog to make it. This is a very competitive world with now hundreds of schools competing for student dollars. It's important to keep this aspect of the business in the conversation.

And I suspect you would not have any quibble with any of that?

Ms. FLINN: No. I think it goes back to my earlier comment that, you know, I think that there are a lot of people in our culinary school with extraordinary aspirations. And if there's one thing I can say about the Le Cordon Bleu, I mean it - they don't really have sort of the food costing programs and classes and so forth that I think a lot of the other schools, even the Le Cordon Bleu schools…

CONAN: And nobody's counting calories, I can tell you that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FLINN: Yeah, absolutely not. I mean, I've been to a Le Cordon Bleu program here in the U.S., and it's much more comprehensive and much more focused on the business of running a restaurant or being in the food service industry. But I think that one of the chefs - in fact, the chef who I talk about a lot in the book…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FLINN: …the gray chef…

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. FLINN: …he reminded us all the time how much work it was, and he would tell us these horrible stories about his own apprenticeship from when he was 13 years old. And he would get up at 4:00 a.m. to receive all of the vegetables and the deliveries, and then break down the wooden crates, make the fires for the kitchen.

CONAN: From the crates?

Ms. FLINN: From the crates, yeah, to fuel the stoves; do whatever bidding it was that the chefs wanted all day long, which, you know, is usually things like gutting fish and peeling potatoes and so forth; and clean up the kitchen at night, and get up a few hours later to do it all again.

CONAN: And all of the stories of your chefs in your book, none of them had gone to a school like Le Cordon Bleu and all of them had risen to become very famous chefs at very famous restaurants…

Ms. FLINN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: …and decided, for very practical reasons, to become a teacher.

Ms. FLINN: Yes, I think it's - I think that becoming a teacher is - when you're, say 50 or 60, makes some sense. I mean, you're not getting up and doing early morning deliveries, you're not working every Friday and Saturday night, and every single holiday. I mean, people who go into the culinary industry frequently forget that that's part of the job.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. FLINN: You're always working when you're friends are out having a good time.

CONAN: Radio, too, yeah. But…

Ms. FLINN: Yeah. So, you know, another glamour profession. And so I think for them, it allows them to have two things. One is time to spend with their family, and in the case of the gray chef, with his wife. His wife had said, I - you know, what I want for my birthday is I want to be able to see you sometimes…

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. FLINN: …because you've become so famous.

CONAN: There are lessons to be learned at Le Cordon Bleu, and you write at the end of the book that the lesson is different for everybody.

Ms. FLINN: I think that's true.

CONAN: What was your lesson? What did you learn?

Ms. FLINN: I think that for me, that as much as this is a book about cooking and living in Paris and falling in love - and it's certainly all those things -it was very much about identity and how far I felt that I had strayed from what I thought my identity was.

When I was a little girl, I never thought, wow, one day I want to grow up and be a corporate middle manager. I mean, I never thought that. What I really wanted to be was a writer. I mean, I put together my first book with freezer tape and I was 9 years old, and I used to play restaurant while all the other kids played house. But I wasn't doing anything that looked anything like me.

And somehow through cooking, through taking this time off and really, taking a time away from a career, every day, we have these small artificial accomplishments that make us forget that there may be something else out there that we want more than what we have today.

CONAN: Kat, thanks very much for coming in. And good luck with, well, whichever career you decide you to follow. Well, you're probably going to do both. I suspect you do a little cooking on the sly.

Ms. FLINN: Oh, I do.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. FLINN: Absolutely.

CONAN: Kathleen Flinn is the author of the new book, "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School." You can read more about her story at our Web site: npr.org/talk. And she was kind enough to join us here today in Studio 3A.

Ms. FLINN: Thank you having me.

CONAN: Coming up, we'll be talking about the Genarlow Wilson case. His attorney will join us to ask - answer questions: 800-989-8255.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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