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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn. Viking. 2011. Review copy from publisher via NetGalley. Holiday reads. Here at Tea Cozy, holiday reads aren’t books about holidays; they’re grown up books for grown up readers to indulge in over the holidays

It’s About: Cooking! Flinn, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, sees a woman in the foodstore stocking up on preprocessed and frozen meals and convinces her to try a few easy, simple substitutes. This leads her to wondering people don’t cook more and why they rely on prepackaged food; Flinn then puts together a group of people who don’t cook, for various reasons, and conducts a series of lessons starting with the right way to use a knife. Will they be transformed into fearless home cooks? Will the reader be?

The Good: I like reading about cooking much more than I like to actual cook. As I once said to someone, I shelve my cookbooks next to my fantasy books. (No, not really. I sometimes exaggerate, but you get the point.)

Flinn’s book is part memoir, part how-to, part recipe, part history. Yes, she wants to know why people don’t want to cook when it’s just as easy to cook; but she is also wondering what she’ll do next with her life.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School didn’t insult me. Sometimes, when people talk about the benefits of home cooking over store bought or preprocessed, they include the opinion that baking or cooking is morally superior than store-bought or packaged. Flinn did not do that; her argument is that it is just as easy to do it yourself, with the additional bonus of being cheaper and healthier and tasting better. These are the things that sway me.

I mentioned history: the history of prepackaged food is fascinating. Reading The Kitchen Counter Cooking School makes me want to find out more about the history of food and cooking;

Will this turn me into a fearless home cook? Well, I don’t always agree with some of Flinn’s conclusions. Fear isn’t a reason I don’t cook; time and energy is. Familiarity, too; something is “easy” once you’ve seen it done, and do it yourself, which is why Flinn’s lessons were successful. Following a recipe for the first time adds time and lessons the “this is easy” element.

Did this book inspire me? Heck, yes! I want to go get some good (yet not terribly expensive) knives. I want to experiment with the simple pasta sauce and salad dressing recipes in the book.

Any recommendations for other books about food and cooking?

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. I need to read this one! Seriously. I adore books about food/cooking. Have you read My Life in France by Julia Child? Wonderful. (And Julie and Julia is quite fun as well.) I also really liked Confections of a Closet Master Baker (written by Sandra Bullock’s sister, but don’t judge her on that), and Pomegranate Soup (which is fiction, but very foody). Oh, and have you read Flinn’s first book, The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry? I really liked that one, too.

  2. I just ordered Kitchen Counter based on your review because it sounds like a fun mix of instruction and cheerleading. And, while I’m all about the nonjudgmental, I have to rise to a small defense of that NY Times article. I think she was saying that home-made is morally superior to store-bought specifically when it comes to bake sales or potluck dinners. You’ve been asked to share something of yourself with others; if you can’t/won’t/don’t make something, you can always bring the napkins, buy bottled water, make the signs, or do the dishes afterwards.

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing non-YA stuff now and then. It’s nice to see what’s going on outside our corner of the book world.

  3. I agree that Finn’s first book is really great. If you want a personal experience with food, Ruth Reichl’s series (starting with Tender at the Bone) is excellent. I would also recommend Michael Ruhlman’s first two books about the CIA – Making of a Chef and Soul of a Chef.

  4. It may look a bit intimidating (my copy is almost 4 pounds), but Mark Bittman has a series of books “How to Cook Everything” and in addition to the recipes, he tells/shows you how to cut, braise, roll, etc. There are pictures and descriptions and at least 2 variations for each recipe. American Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated are also very detailed probably once you get way more comfortable with your skills.

  5. I dislike Mark Bittman exactly for those variations, Maggie. I have How to Cook Everything (and how to Cook Everything Vegetarian, actually) and it’s invaluable as a reference, but I think for people who are just learning to cook, it can be so frustrating! The instructions for the variations are often confusing, leave things out, etc. I’m a baker at heart, though (meaning I love to follow instructions, measure, etc. etc.), so maybe that’s my problem 😉

    I like David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris; who doesn’t want to read about Paris?! The recipes are pretty good, too. I’ve had my eye on The Flavor Bible since it came out 3 years ago. It’s so fun to flip through, and if you’re into experimenting, it’s a great source of inspiration.

  6. For a history of food and cooking in the twentieth century, which will give you a lot of information about the emergence of packaged and prepared food, there are two good books by Laura Shapiro:
    Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century; and Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.

  7. Wow! You are all amazing and wonderful and I will never run out of things to read! I’m going to have to print this list out and take it to the bookstore with me.

    Melissa, I loved MY LIFE IN FRANCE. I have not read any of the other 3 books; I’ll look for them. Baking, I have to say, scares me: I see cooking as art, and so more forgiving, while baking seems like a more exact science and so more prone to sad results.

    Lisa, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Kristi, I read the first Reichl book and still think about her mother’s meals. I’ll look for Ruhlman’s books.

    Maggie, thanks for the recommendations.

    Emily, thanks for the heads up about the Bitman book. I’ll be sure to read before I buy, in case it is too overwhelming at this point. Thanks for the other titles.

    David, oh, both of those sound right up my alley and will be less guilt-inducing than buying a cookbook I may not use. (Hey, at least I’m honest about my flaws!)

  8. I have to get this book.

    I second the Bittman books. They make everything seem possible. You might also like Home Cooking and More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. The books are essays about food that include recipes, so it has the storytelling and narrative thing going on, and she also makes cooking seem very possible.

  9. *cracks knuckles* Okay, you had to know I wouldn’t be able to resist chiming in on this one! 😎

    For food writing, MFK Fisher’s GASTRONOMICAL ME is an absolute *must*. So much of the food writing we read today is derivative of Fisher’s outstanding work. My favorite Ruth Reichl is GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES – very NYC centric with exceptional writing. I’m an evangelist for Gabrielle Hamilton’s BLOOD, BONES, AND BUTTER – read it now.

    My new favorite cookbook is AN EVERLASTING MEAL by Tamar Adler – I’m so curious to hear what you think about it. The idea is that you throw out the recipe and cook in bulk (sort of) for the week. I’m a recipe follower myself so I’m finding it a bit disconcerting, but what I’ve read so far is brilliant and Tamar Adler may get me to boil a chicken yet! (And it also sounds like Adler’s philosophies are in line with Flinn’s, who I haven’t read yet) Also, you can’t go wrong with Nigel Slater’s cookbooks, especially his REAL FOOD FAST. He’s serious – it really is fast food (with a British flair).

    I second THE FLAVOR BIBLE. It’s *the* book you want to have in your kitchen if you don’t know what you want to cook, you have no recipe, and you’re wondering what might go with what. It takes out a lot of the guesswork and the cross-referencing could make a librarian go weak at the knees!

  10. Adrienne & Laura, thanks! So many good books!

  11. I have to agree with Laura, “Gastronomical Me” is very good, as is Jane Grigson’s Good Things and Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson. And of course anything related to Spanish cooking and food.