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Amy Thielen on MN Cooking & NY Restaurant Kitchens

Photo: Food Network

Cookbook author, Food Network host, and Minnesota native Amy Thielen made her bones in the east coast kitchens of chefs like David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Shea Gallant. She walked away from it all to move back to Park Rapids, MN, a quiet town at the head of the Mississippi River, to raise her family.

While there, she penned her much-lauded cookbook The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes, which came out last year. She is also the host of Food Network's Heartland Table, which launched last year and is set to air its second season. She'll be in town next Thursday, March 6, to cook as a guest chef at Gather inside the Walker Arts Center.

Eater Minneapolis recently caught up with the Thielen to discuss everything from cutthroat New York kitchens to similarities between Brooklyn and small town Minnesota.

Joy Summers

When did you know that The New Midwestern Table was the cookbook you wanted to write? I had known for a long time. Even when I was cooking in New York City, I knew. There is a relationship between fine dining and rural food. There is a connection between these rustic dishes and what is on those beautiful plates. I was thinking, why is that connection there? Why am I not seeing these dishes that I grew up with?

When we had our son, that was when I knew I couldn't work these 90 hour work weeks. You know, I was in these highly successful, incredibly stressful kitchens. Not working that much didn't even occur to me. That was when I knew it was time to write this book. I really wanted a career where I could do the things I love, develop recipes, and do more home cooking.

When did you take your foot off the gas? It took me two years to become a civilian again, to get out of that mindset of a chef behind the line. It took moving back to a small town, with our small town grocery store and live within those parameters. I learned to love the professional inspiration of working within those limits.

What ingredients do you miss having easy access to that your local grocery doesn't carry? A lot of Asian ingredients—sushi rice, which is great for rice pudding. Good sesame oil. Bitter greens in the winter. I miss radicchio this time of year for citrus salads—and good green beans. The ones we get here, you have to use right away because who knows how long they've been sitting there? I'll cut them on the bias and stir fry with garlic—that's one fix. You find a way to work with what you have.

It's freezing here now. This has been such a long, cold winter, but we have some seeds we've started in our greenhouse: mache, arugula, some mesclun.

Were there any ingredients from Minnesota that you couldn't source when you were in NYC? It was crazy, I remember thinking, you can't even get this stuff here! Like little wild raspberries. I missed those. People say, you're crazy—you can get everything in New York! There are a lot of similarities between Brooklyn and small town Minnesota. There's a certain insular drama, focus on sustainability...

Beards. Ha! Now. Yes beards—and beer.

I probably couldn't live in a [Twin Cities] suburb, but moving back home wasn't so different from living in Brooklyn. You stick with your own, everyone knows their neighbors, knows their business.

What smells remind you of New York? You mean other than rat piss? It's the things inside the buildings where the good smells are. Like, a dark, perfect croissant.

What has surprised you most about your success? We're all the way out here, so I don't think it really affects us...I just want to keep doing this. That's not really surprising.

I was surprised at how quickly I became comfortable with the camera. If I didn't have a knife in my hand I don't know if I'd be able to do this so easily.

You're somehow able to take this Minnesota food, dishes Minnesotans recognize from church basements and in neighbor's kitchens and make it really cool. How do you do that? It's so much fun to share these flavors, watch people have those taste memories and that collective response to really good food. Right now, this is our moment in time.

I love all of this—all of the food. There's nothing ironic about this. It's not a snob contest. You know, I spent a lot of time working in all these top kitchens, where it was very cutthroat and it was all kind of a snob contest.

What can we expect to see in the next season of Heartland Table?More of my house. We go beyond the kitchen. I did an episode with my cousin Matt. That was fun. My neighbors come over and we all cook together. Not much of my son. We tried to get him and he actually locked himself in his room and yelled, "No producer!" He loves to see himself on TV, but hates actually doing it.

We can next see you at the First Thursday guest chef series at Gather at the Walker. What are you going to be making? Steakhouse Deviled Eggs, they're served warm. I really love those things. And a grilled mushroom salad. I wanted to do more, but it's only two dishes. I'm really excited. It's going to be a lot of fun.

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