Early in her memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, author and Le Cordon Bleu graduate Kathleen Flinn recounts a strikingly painful incident from her time at the venerable French cooking school led by André Cointreau.
For one of her daily assignments, Flinn presents duck à l'orange to an instructor she refers to as the "Gray Chef." The seemingly simple dish has a complex sauce, a reduction of veal stock and orange juice tempered with vinegar, and on this day, the Gray Chef finds her sauce too sweet.
He berates her in the normal fashion, telling her the dish is not difficult, that her work is horrible, that she shouldn't have served it. And as he turns to the next student, he lobs Flinn the ultimate insult: "Vous perdez votre temps."
You're wasting your time.
She gathers her knives, runs to the bathroom, and sobs.
In the end, Flinn says she learned the lesson absorbed by nearly all students: You may think you're trying to please your teacher, when in reality you're trying to please yourself.
"I had the realization that it wasn't about him at all, that it ultimately ended up being about myself," Flinn says. "I had taken this huge leap and put out my identity and sense of self-worth and all of my savings to do this thing that most people thought I shouldn't do. I had to prove to myself I had made the right decision."
Flinn paid her way through Le Cordon Bleu using her savings, a credit extension on her Visa card, and severance pay from Microsoft, where she was the founding restaurant editor of Sidewalk.com.
Flinn talked to U.S. News about the ins and outs of Le Cordon Bleu, the differences between American and French culinary schools, and how she squared things away with the Gray Chef. Excerpts:
To your understanding, what are the differences between the training you can receive at Le Cordon Bleu and a culinary school in America?
I think it's definitely boot-camp-like in both the U.S. and French training, but maybe more so in French training. Le Cordon Bleu is unique in that it follows the "classic cycle," with basic, intermediate, and superior segments, and you have to pass each one of those segments before you move up.
A lot of people go through basic and they don't move up. They may think, "I learned enough" or "Wow, this is really a lot harder than I thought," which happens. I think the chefs are hard on students in basic because they want to test them to see if they want to move up to intermediate. It's culinary Darwinism at work.
French chefs, especially those who came through the ranks at a certain time, have a reputation of being abusive. Was that your experience throughout your time in school?
I think it depends on the chef. Certainly, the older chefs, they came through the ranks at a different time. One chef was 14 when he started working, he would get up at 4 a.m. to break down vegetable crates, he slept on a cot, he feels like "This is what I had to go through, and me yelling at you is no big deal." He wouldn't see it as being abusive at all, because it was much more of an apprentice system. Sometimes they just yell at you. They want you to do well.
You were a journalism student, then a writer, and then a manager at Microsoft before cooking school. How did Le Cordon Bleu change things for you?
I now do a combination of things: a little catering, some freelancing, and I teach classes on cooking and food writing. I'm chair of the food writers, editors, and publishers section of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, a role I wouldn't be doing otherwise.
I think the reality is that journalism school and culinary school are really similar in that you pay all this money and get out of school... I went to work making $14,000 a year.
Most of my classmates from Le Cordon Bleu have all found different things to do; they've found their niche. One is a galley chef on a research boat in Alaska. I think Le Cordon Bleu is different in that everyone scrapes to get by in school, and then we take our movable talents and go out to do different things.
Professional cooking was described to me by one highly experienced executive chef as blue-collar work. Why has an essentially low-paying, high-stress, physically demanding job become so alluring in recent years?
I think TV is hugely to blame for it, because it has the ability to glamorize anything. If a reality show can glamorize nannies and dog trainers, of course TV can glamorize chefs. It seems like a private club that somehow, once you get in, you're in this exclusive company that people want access to.
What happened with Gray Chef?
It was one of those situations where "I pushed you because I love you." One day I made puff pastry with tuna and I was expecting a hard time, and he said, "It's perfect." I think there's something to that. There is nothing better than pleasing your harshest critic.
Does he know he's in the book?
Oh yes, he thinks he's the star of it. Now he calls me "ma petite amie."