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Local chef publishes culinary memoir

Chef and author Amy Thielen chronicles her journey from rural, northern Minnesota to New York City fine dining -- and back again -- in her entertaining new memoir, "Give a Girl a Knife." (Photo credit: TJ Turner)1 / 2
Thielen's memoir was released in hardcover and ebook on May 16 by Clarkson Potter. Her hometown book launch is 2 p.m. Saturday, May 27 at the Nemeth Art Center.2 / 2

One could say that Amy Thielen found foodie heaven.

Her new memoir, "Give a Girl a Knife," essentially reads like a love story about rural Midwestern home cooking and haute cuisine.

And her culinary journey begins and ends in Park Rapids.

The chef and author will read from her latest book at a hometown launch on Saturday, May 27 at the Nemeth Art Center. The event begins at 2 p.m.

'My kitchen affliction'

In "Give a Girl a Knife," Thielen traces the path to her "kitchen affliction" — from a rustic, off-the-grid cabin in Two Inlets State Forest to 80-hour-per-week shifts as a line cook in New York City's finest restaurants.

Thielen affectionately recounts growing up in Park Rapids amidst a multi-generational family of cooks. She also recalls a cooking stint at the Schwarzwald Inn.

For three years, Thielen and her husband, visual artist Aaron Spangler, lived like snowbirds in their "one-room house way out in the middle of the yawning forest" during the gardening season.

There, inspired by her grandmother's tales of cooking in a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, Thielen determinedly honed her cooking, canning and cultivating skills.

During the winter months, they lived in Minneapolis.

In 1999, the couple moved to Brooklyn, where Thielen attended culinary school and worked for the Big Apple's most celebrated chefs. She spent seven years cooking professionally under David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Shea Gallante.

Thielen's memoir is flush with nostalgia, wit and down-to-earthiness about her savory adventures.

Her richly detailed writing will make readers hungry.

For example, while a chef to her right flings lobster and foie gras onto a metal sizzle plate at a decadent restaurant, Thielen describes the part of the dish for which she was responsible: "floppy half-wilted leaves of spinach standing up on two legs before falling into corn sauce; tufts of horseradish cream swirling in cumulus patterns into rusty swaths of short rib jus; marble-size bone-marrow dumplings topped with fleecy tan beanies of buttery bread crumbs."

Homecoming

"The point of the book is to merge those two worlds. I realized my worlds are extremely, wildly different. You can't make a more dramatic change than Two Inlets to Brooklyn," Thielen said in a phone interview.

Thielen's cooking style is heavily influenced by her mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. She writes fondly about time spent in the kitchen with her German-Bohemian Grandma Addie and French-Canadian Grandma Bertha.

"In my memory, these women are all crowded into the kitchen arguing over the contents of the pot on the stove, their voices joining to scale an imaginary mountain peak of volume," wrote Thielen. "Their belief system could be summed up in three ingredients: butter, fermented pickles and bacon. We believed in bacon. Meat in general, actually."

Thielen said it was important to her to write truthfully about the past. She also didn't want to manufacture drama where there wasn't any.

"I don't want it to ring false. I want it to stay true to reality," she said. "Aaron definitely fact-checked the whole way."

The narrative style embedded in her cookbook, "The New Midwestern Table," prompted the memoir. Thielen's editor at Clarkson Potter urged her to take those stories and expand upon them.

"Memoirs have become a super popular genre in the last 10 years or so," Thielen noted.

Drawing from her journals, memories and colleagues' recollections, Thielen wrote "Give a Girl a Knife" over the course of two years.

"It felt long to me, but it's super average," she said.

Editing took another year, then additional months to get the book ready for its May 16 publication date.

"It was a real challenge to me, personally, because I'd never written anything of that scope or length," Thielen said. "It's writing about character motivation. It has more in common with storytelling than with my non-fiction articles."

Thielen speaks and writes for radio and magazines, and is a contributing editor at "Saveur," a gourmet food, wine and travel magazine specializing in essays about various world cuisines.

"Food was the starting point for me when it comes to remembering something," she said, adding that she many not recall the name of a town during her travels, but she will remember precisely what she ate.

The memoir ends in 2008, shortly after the couple's return to Two Inlets and the birth of their son, Hank.

"It's kind of a discreet story. It's more of a story about homecoming. I limited it to that," she said.

Return to her roots

Thielen tapped her Minnesotan roots to introduce her signature takes on classic Midwestern dishes.

"In terms of what I'm really trying to do is forge my own style," she said. "When I cook, I'm pretty much off the cuff. I cook extemporaneously."

Upon reflecting on her acclaimed chef bosses, Thielen realized the link to their past was what made their signature dishes contemporary and original.

"And it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that place of origin was the primary tool in any chef's toolbox. Dishes that leaned too hard on culinary trends felt slightly derivative, no matter how technically perfect they were," she writes in "Give a Girl A Knife."

"I think there are universal themes," Thielen said of the book. "Where do you live? Do you go back home? If you go back home, will it be depressing or good? It's a coming-of-age story in that how do you figure out what to do? What's your passion?"

The book tour takes her to Midwestern indie bookstores throughout Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan.

On June 3, there is a public, ribbon-cutting ceremony for Aaron's new sculpture at the Walker Art Center.

While grateful to have completed the memoir, there are a few drawbacks, says the avid gardener.

"It's springtime planting and I have to be away from home."

The chives are up and rhubarb is almost ready to be eaten. Thielen looks forward to cooking again, especially outdoor grilling.

"I'm working on another cookbook I'm excited about," she said.

"The New Midwestern Table" won the 2014 James Beard Award for American Cooking. Her TV series, "Heartland Table," on Food Network was also nominated for the James Beard Award.

"Any time you put out a book, you hope people read it and like it and hope for the best," she said.

The May 27 book event is jointly sponsored by the Nemeth Art Center and Beagle and Wolf Books.

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