Kathleen Flinn’s sensible, humane approach to demystifying the kitchen has made her a star in Japan — and it can help you banish the stress this Thanksgiving, too.
This spring, people in Japan started friending Kathleen Flinn on Facebook. Lots of people. The Seattle author of The New York Times best-seller “The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry” had no idea what was going on. It soon became apparent that another book of hers — “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School,” published here in 2011 — had, belatedly, become big there. Really big. It just went into its fourth printing in Japanese, and there’s a TV show based on it in the works, along with a musical.
“It’s just all surreal,” according to Flinn. She went over there in July, and, she says, “It was crazy!” One event, with space for 200 fans, sold out within an hour; another, within 45 minutes. She was on major-network TV. The musical is set to launch in February.
The title for “Kitchen Counter” in the Japanese market translates to, roughly, “The Magic Cooking Classroom That Changes Bad Girls’ Lives.” The book recounts Flinn’s grand experiment in teaching a group of Seattle-area women to overcome their intimidation in the kitchen, acting as part cooking instructor, part therapist.
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She went to their homes, looked through their cupboards and fridges, listened to how they talked about food and shopping and cooking and life, their mothers and grandmothers and spouses, their love of the Food Network, and how they felt lost and afraid when it came to cooking. “I’ve watched Gordon Ramsay while eating Tuna Helper,” one tells her. “I’m so ashamed.” The student-volunteers were “terrified of raw chicken,” Flinn writes, “and bemoaned their inability to make palatable vegetables.” They bought too much food, then didn’t know what to do with it, or how to deal with leftovers, so they threw a lot away, feeling yet more shame.
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The English subtitle for “Kitchen Counter” is “How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks.” Why does this promise resonate in Japan in particular? “My editor and translator’s take is that in Japanese culture, women are expected to be able to do it all — have a career, be an immaculate housekeeper, a fabulous mother, a diligent daughter and an amazing individual with extensive hobbies, and a talented cook,” Flinn says. Dryly, she observes, “This may sound familiar to American women.”
Women there, as here, are compared to earlier generations, when fewer worked outside the home, so cooking could be a priority. But food’s even more essential to Japanese culture, and the sense of failure is more acute. Flinn doesn’t claim deep familiarity with how things work there, but she thinks “it’s rather binary. Something is good or it’s bad. That’s really what the [Japanese] title refers to — the insecurity of women who are expected to be perfect, and since they’re not, they’re ‘bad.’” One Japanese sales pitch she saw for the book translates to “Buy this and you will become happy.”
Flinn was also surprised to find that Japanese readers located their surrogate in the book’s pages and identified, seriously, with her. Lots of entertainment there is strongly character-based, she notes. Thus, in the way someone might have said that they’re “a Samantha” vis-à-vis “Sex and the City,” Flinn heard the likes of “I’m a Donna!” in Japan, “all the time.”
So here we are at the holidays, the most intimidating time of all for unsure cooks, whatever their gender or special fears may be. Flinn kindly boiled down the lessons of “Kitchen Counter”/“Bad Girls” into five top tips, which actually apply to us all.
1. “Get a good knife and learn to use it.” Flinn says that a hands-on class is optimal (I’d bet that a class at Hot Stove Society is well worth the $50, which includes supper), but you can also find her own video lesson at cookfearless.com/knife, along with advice on knife-buying. Also: The sharper your knife, the less you cry! Get a good sharpener and study up on how to DIY, or take your blades to a reputable place for pro sharpening (I hear good things about Nella Cutlery in Sodo, 1917 Fourth Ave. S., 206-766-8341, weekdays 7 a.m.-3 p.m., drop off/pick up next day, $5 per knife).
2. “Restock your kitchen.” Flinn advises all of us to take a few hours and go through the fridge, freezer and pantry, getting rid of all the outdated stuff, then upgrade to fresher and higher quality on the frequently used goods: olive oil, vinegar, Parmesan, spices. (I just dumped out a grocery-store bottle of cinnamon, expiration-dated March 2013!?, and refilled it halfway with super-fancy Ceylon cinnamon from the bulk jars at Central Coop for $1.50. The old stuff smelled, barely, like stale Cinnamon Toast Crunch; the new, like a trip to somewhere warm and magical and far away. Speaking of magical places, Big John’s PFI also sells spices in bulk.) For extra credit, Flinn suggests doing comparative tastings of everyday items like salt and canned tomatoes (and gives more info on her website).
3. “Get an instant-read meat thermometer.” Flinn’s “Kitchen Counter”/”Bad Girls” students were afraid of raw chicken — and what’s a turkey but a giant version of a chicken? Ditch the worry about over- or undercooking meat by banishing the guesswork. She recommends thekitcn.com’s usage guide. (I got one of these in a swag bag a while back, tried it once, and went from too-cool-to-use-it to pretty much a convert. It’s especially handy in proving to relatives that no, the turkey doesn’t need another 20 minutes just to be sure.)
4. “Learn some basic formulas and flavor profiles.” Flinn loves to teach people how to make vinaigrette, “a simple ratio: three parts oil to one part vinegar/citrus juice, with some pepper and salt … after that, you can make countless variations.” A French version gets minced shallot, Dijon, herbes de Provence; Italian, maybe garlic and oregano. Keep going, to various Asian flavors, Greek, North African and more, she says, and “you can apply the same principles to that piece of chicken, that bowl of steamed vegetables and so on.” (Something like a simple roasted butternut squash soup is a real confidence-builder, being both delicious and very hard to mess up, and a good canvas for experimenting with herbs and spices — try adding your fresh new ones to individual bowls, then stir and taste.)
5. “Don’t be a slave to recipes and forgive your mistakes.” Don’t have that ¼ teaspoon of a certain spice, or have broccoli instead of squash? The recipe might just work anyway. (I like Googling “substitute for [whatever]” or for similar recipes to compare.) And Flinn has a secret for you: “Even professional cooks totally screw up sometimes.” It’s OK to fail. “Remember, it’s only one meal,” she points out. “No one is going to tell you to pack your knives and go home” — even, or maybe especially, on a holiday. If you do totally screw up, it’ll at least be memorable (like the Thanksgiving when I stabbed myself in the hand and fainted from the blood). We’ve all eaten dry turkey, and it’s not that bad (plus you’ve got your meat thermometer for that now!). Pass the gravy, and the wine, and be thankful to be together and to be alive. Plenty of time to practice for next year!