So you think you can’t cook? Well, think again

Kathleen Flinn didn’t know how to use her culinary training when a chance encounter at a grocery store gave her an idea.

Flinn stumbled upon a woman whose shopping cart overflowed with processed food — boxed pasta mixes, jars of ready-made gravy, frozen dinners. Unable to stay quiet, the 2005 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris encouraged the shopper to buy “real” food — a whole chicken and potatoes instead of heat-and-serve chicken and mashed potato meals.

Flinn, author of “The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry,” kept ruminating over that grocery cart until the simmering led to her next book project — turning non-cooks into cooks.

Flinn, 44, was convinced women such as the one she bumped into at that grocery store could transform the way they eat if given some basic skills — knowing how to use a knife, roast vegetables, cut a whole chicken.

Enlisting friends of friends and using the radio to recruit a few more, Flinn turned nine novice cooks into confident cooks and then she wrote about it.

The result is “The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks.” (Viking, $26.95)

The AJC recently caught up with Flinn, who will be in Atlanta at the Buckhead Barnes & Noble on Wednesday.

Q: Where should a novice cook get started?

A: Invest in a good knife, or if you have a good knife, get it sharpened. The second thing is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be ready to forgive yourself. The great thing about cooking is that if it doesn’t work out, you’ll make another meal in a few hours.

Q: What is the first thing we should learn to cook?

A: One lesson is to roast because the food pretty much cooks itself. Take vegetables and slice them into cubes, toss them in a little olive oil, add a little salt and pepper and put into the oven at 400 degrees and they’ll cook in about 15 to 20 minutes. The other thing is learn to sauté. Sautéing is just a little olive oil in the pan and getting it hot and cooking things quickly. If you can roast and sauté, you can cook almost anything.

Q: You recommend everyone learn to use and cut up a whole chicken. Why is that so important?

A: For the same cost as a package of boneless chicken breasts, you can buy the entire bird. Once you get the hang of cutting a whole chicken, it takes you less than 10 minutes to cut one up. With the whole chicken you get the breasts, and you get the rest — you can braise the legs, and you can use the bones for stock. You can get two to three quarts of chicken stock out of one chicken. When you start with a whole chicken, it reinforces the idea that this was once an animal. And when you have that reinforcement, you are less likely to waste food.

Q: What is one packaged product you refuse to buy?

A: There are so many, but one for sure is salad dressing. A simple [bottled] vinaigrette is expensive. People say gas is expensive; bottled dressing is $20 to $46 a gallon. You can make a vinaigrette with a very simple formula: three parts of any oil and one part vinegar. Shake it up with a little salt and pepper and, congratulations, you’ve made a simple vinaigrette.

Q: How did that woman at the grocery store respond to you, and do you know if she changed her ways in the kitchen?

A: I wish I knew. I didn’t get her contact information, something I regret. I thought it was weird enough I stalked her through the store and got her to get rid of all of the boxes in her cart. I remember she said to me before she left, ‘At first I thought you were some crazy person. But this feels like Wonder Woman stopping to help fix a flat tire.’ And then she gave me an enthusiastic wave goodbye. I think about her all the time. I hope one day she knows what she inspired.