It started out as a distraction — a way for Amy Thielen to put off writing the multitude of papers waiting for her and instead, immerse herself in the flavors she adored to cook for the friends she loved.
It’s almost funny then, that she finally gave into her cooking when she had the fewest distractions possible.
After attending college at Macalester University in St. Paul, Thielen moved in with her boyfriend at the time (now her husband) at a cabin in the great Midwestern woods. And no, we’re not talking about a resort parading as a cabin — this was the real deal.
No electricity. No running water. Just a couple of empty jugs, a sturdy pair of hands and the great outdoors.
“My husband used to pump the water by hand from a hand pump at the bottom of the hill into big jugs and then drag it up the hill,” she said. “And that’s the water we used. So I knew exactly how many gallons of water I was using per day, which is about six or seven.”
She grew a garden, which provided a number of ingredients for her Midwestern dishes and drove the 20 miles into town if she needed anything else.
“I kind of immersed myself in the cooking of another era,” she said. “I would often call my grandmother to ask her all these questions because she was a fount of knowledge for how you fermented things or hand-ground poppy seeds or flour, any of that stuff, she knew it.”
Her cooking was influenced by true Minnesota roots — from the food she plucked from the land to the early traditional practices and techniques used generations ago.
Anything that stuck was posted on her blog, a way to keep up her writing while sending her thoughts on cooking and life in Minnesota into the universe.
“It was an outlet for me,” she said.
She would work at a diner on Main Street in Park Rapids (Schwarzwald Inn) and in the wintertime, she freelanced in custom publishing. She’d then save up that money, and return to the woods to continue her voyage into classic cooking.
It wasn’t until her father visited the diner and asked a simple question that she realized, maybe she should get serious about becoming a chef.
“My dad came in one day and I knew it was him because on the circular ticket holder, his ticket came in and it was chef salad, no eggs — and that’s what he always ordered. So I went out and talked to him, I got my cup of coffee and made his salad and went out there … And he just looked at me and he said, ‘What are you doing?'” Thielen said. “Because it had been about two or three years since college, I was working at a diner, I had a degree that I was still paying loans on and he paid plenty, too. So I said, ‘I think I need to cook and I want to go to cooking school.’ So that’s when I moved to New York City.”
She left her tiny old school kitchen for pretty much the exact opposite, spending seven years in fine dining, serving the hungry elite of the Big Apple.
“I helped open a couple restaurants in Manhattan and if you want to have a cardiac, go open a restaurant in Manhattan and wait for the critic to come in. That is about as high pressure as it gets in the cooking world, waiting for and then spotting — at the time it was Frank Bruni and I thought, seriously, my heart would explode,” she said.
And then life changed, in an instant — she and her husband were expecting their first child.
As it turns out, 80-90 hours a week working in a kitchen wasn’t exactly desirable for Thielen’s start to motherhood. So after several years in the big city, she and her husband packed up their life and headed back to the kitchen where the inspiration began.
Today, it’s from that very kitchen — now with running water and electricity — that she stars in her very own show (Heartland Table) on the prestigious Food Network channel — and it was on those long drives to and from town that she dreamt up the three-year process that would become her new cookbook (The New Midwestern Table).
During a recent in-studio interview with Thielen, we chatted with the newest celebrity chef on her love of Midwestern cuisine, where she sees it going and what it’s like to work with Lidia Bastianich.
What kind of food did you grow up with?
My mom was a really good cook and super ambitious about it. She would go to the store, sometimes more than once a day. She would go at first to get stuff for lunch and then she would return and get food for dinner. She was a really good cook. It was always a big dinner with two or three vegetable sides – a very proper, you know, Midwestern meal every single night. We had a lot of meat. It was good. She was a great cook.
Do you remember the first thing you made from scratch?
The first thing I ever cooked was probably scrambled eggs. And I had it in my mind that I was going to give them some kind of flourish and so I would burn them almost, like dark brown, using lots of butter and really incredibly overcooked. At the time I told myself I loved it, just because it was my recipe. I don’t like them that way any longer.
When you left the culinary world of fine dining in New York, was that a difficult decision to make at the time?
No, I was ready. And I always liked to write but frankly, when I first sat down to be a writer, after college this is what you do when you’re an English major, you sit down and be like, ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ You sit down with a pad of paper and I had nothing to write about. I had nothing to say. So really, the daily practice of cooking is what I want to record and I feel like some of the best work that I’ve done is in communicating the small details about cooking that make everybody a better cook. Those are the things that I picked up when I worked professionally. That’s my whole take away. I don’t make fancy, fancy meals at our house. I don’t put on, very often anyway, multi-course dinner parties or tasting menus but what I’ve taken away from the time I spent in a professional kitchen are the small tricks – small things like garnishing things, or the way I cut stuff or even the sheer organization of putting together a dinner, those kinds of things make cooking so much easier. So I tried to embed as many of those tricks and tips as I could into my book and when I write on my blog or write articles, those are the types of things I’m trying to bring to life and show people.
And beyond that, you’re also telling people about the Midwest with great Midwest stories. What are you hoping to convey to people who may not be as familiar with the area?
Well so much of cooking and eating is not about the food. So much of it is about the culture around it and the feeling behind it. And so a lot of the stories in my book are about that. If I write about, let’s say, going to a friend’s house for her horseradish party, where I describe we all sat around peeling horseradish root together and drank wine and then took turns going outside to process it into a coarse puree for the winter, that tells a lot about Midwestern food more than just a recipe. So that’s why there’s so many stories in the book because those are the things that feed us just as much.
What made you come back to Minnesota?
I don’t think we were New York City lifers in the first place. We liked being outside and we liked being outside in a more green setting and not just Central Park or Prospect Park. But at the same time, New York is a very seductive place. Mostly, being at our place in the country – it’s a good place for us both to work. My husband is a sculptor and he shows in New York. And he makes big shows with lots of pieces of sculpture and he has a huge studio here in the woods where he can do that. And I really, really love to cook out of the garden and we have a baby orchard and we have grapes and we have all this stuff where I can make very rooted food. So mostly I think that mostly it’s a great place for us to work and it’s probably a better place for us to raise our kid – although, he loves New York City. He loves visiting. “Why don’t we live here?” he says. He loves going to museums and places and things like that.
What made you want to do a cookbook?
Well where we live you have to drive a long way to town. It’s about 20 miles and I would drive that every day and I love living there for the drive, actually. Because it’s calming and centering to me and I feel like I get a lot of good ideas as I’m driving to town or back from town. And I don’t know. I just, I see a lot of hope there – I know that sounds really cheesy but I thought that it’s a place that has a lot of possibility. And also when you’re coming from a cuisine that’s not incredibly popularized across the United States, it seemed really ripe for it. I’m going to give this a stab, this is just my attempt at corralling a bunch of recipes together that might speak to us having a cuisine and also, throughout our road trips. My husband and I take a lot of road trips just for fun and to explore things and I was running across a lot of restaurants in smaller Midwestern cities that were doing some really cool things and they were also mining our cultural food heritage. So it just became very overwhelming to me that there needed to be yet another book – I’m not the first Midwestern book by any means but I wanted to give it a go by myself.
You talk a little about the future of Midwestern cuisine in the book. Where do you think it’s headed?
Which is changing. I think that, we have a lot of new immigration in the Midwest and it’s interesting to me to drive through rural Iowa or rural Nebraska and find these little tacquerias that are making the best tacos and super, super authentic Mexican food or Central American or south American food. We were in Grand Island, Nebraska and walked into a pupuseria – you don’t walk into pupuseria’s in Minneapolis that often, not on every corner. So they had this amazing pupuseria and I went into the back and that’s all Salvadorian and I went into the back and this woman taught me how to make the pupusas and it was just a great cultural moment. And I love going to the Hmong marketplace in St. Paul, in the same way that I just love being immersed into another culture. It’s so intact there and it’s so alive.
I understand Lidia Bastianich helped produce your Food Network show and even came to your cabin for a few days to test some ideas. What was that like?
Yeah, three days with Lidia. It was incredible. Never did I ever dream that Lidia Bastianich would be standing in my kitchen, coaching me about how to be on TV. It was pretty incredible. But you know what I really appreciate about her and her whole team is that they have a deep food knowledge and she cares about all the details in the same way that I do. Because in a lot of ways, Italian food is about simplicity and bringing out the best of the ingredients and I would argue that Midwestern food is the same. So when I say I really need the right kind of potatoes for this potato dish … I actually ordered a box of freshly dug potatoes, dirt and all, from Bloomington, Indiana, from a guy down there and had them shipped. And when I was telling the producers about it, Lidia said, ‘Oh yeah, of course. This is not weird. Of course you need a box of potatoes from Bloomington, Indiana.’
Besides wonderful recipes, what do you hope viewers come away with from your show, your cookbook or even the blog?
I hope that people are proud of the food that they make in their kitchens when they make homemade food. I just hope that people enjoy cooking and don’t worry so much about whether it’s perfect. It’s not really about that. It’s about making something that fills your hunger and fits the need of the moment, whether that’s something really, really simple or if it’s a really, really big meal that you eat for the rest of the week. I just hope people aren’t afraid of cooking. It’s OK to make mistakes – you have to make them to get better. And mistakes can be good, too – they can be edible.
Amy Thielen On WCCO Sunday Morning