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US chef learns lessons of life in French kitchen

By Elaine Lies
/ Source: Reuters

By Elaine Lies

When Amy Finley moved to France to fulfil a long-held dream of travelling through the nation's venerable culinary regions in pursuit of vanishing traditional cuisine, she expected to learn only about food.

But she also gained valuable lessons about life that helped her recommit to a shaky marriage.

"I had very strong feelings about how can people be like this, how can they be passive about letting something as beautiful as this incredible food culture crumble," Finley, who chronicled her adventures in "How to Eat a Small Country," said in a telephone interview from her home in California.

"I realised that was because it was so wrapped up in my own feelings about my marriage, and ways that we had and hadn't protected it over time, and how we wanted to make it stronger."

A long-term cook who went to culinary school in France and married a Frenchman, with whom she had two children, Finley sent an audition tape to Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star" on a whim and ended up hosting a show called "The Gourmet Next Door," hoping to bring families closer through food.

Ironically, her burgeoning television career put strains on her own marriage, taking Finley and her husband to the brink of divorce. Eventually, in desperation, they moved to France to try to work things out.

Once there, they travelled the country, sampling fragrant bouillabaisse in Marseilles, hearty cassoulet in Carcassone, and exotic dishes such as "tripoux" -- sheep's feet braised and shredded, mixed with ham, and tied into the sheep's stomach to be slowly braised again, then sliced and fried.

The journey led to a surprising discovery: as more people opt for convenience, French home cooking may be under threat.

"Whether you're in France or you're here, life is pretty similar. We've got families, we've got jobs, hobbies, friends, other things we'd like to invest our time in," she said.

"It seems like not a big deal to take that little shortcut and it's not necessarily a big deal until you've got some significant proportion of the population doing that, and you realize, within one generation we've forgotten how to cook."

Finley thought it would be especially unfortunate for France, the home of haute cuisine, to lose this.

In particular, she admired techniques used through centuries for making do with whatever was on hand, coming up with meals out of bits and pieces, or slow-cooking tough meat until tender.

"You might approach everything with the attitude that everything is disposable, I only want the best, the nicest cut. But I think that life demands that we have that ability to be flexible and a little more humble," she said.

"Those are the ideas that kept reinforcing themselves for me -- that the skills I needed to be a better partner inside my marriage were a lot of the same skills I got out of cooking. There's a lot of marriage that requires making do."

No matter where you are, Finley came to believe, preparing a meal each night whether you want to or not also teaches valuable things about problem-solving -- especially true if people don't cook that often.

"To have to do that over and over again, (is) practicing that even though it's hard, you can't just sit and stare at the monolith, you have to take it one piece at a time and just work your way over it," she said.

"It's exactly the same way we approach lots of other problems in our lives. It's never easy to figure out where to start but at least starting gets you closer to the change that you think you would like." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)