At first glance, Amy Thielen doesn’t look like a Food Network star. There are no plunging necklines or bleached hair. No wild-and-crazy shtick from this quiet young woman with the engaging laugh, who calls north- central Minnesota home.
She does, however, look a bit like the Midwest, homespun and friendly, with a gentle smile, a little self-conscious about all the fuss that’s swirling around her as she debuts on “Heartland Table” this Saturday on the Food Network (9:30 a.m.). The program’s six episodes were shot in her kitchen in the log cabin she shares with her 6-year-old son, Hank, and husband, Aaron. It’s a rustic spot, built on 150 acres outside Two Inlets, a town so small it’s unincorporated.
Pines line the road to the cabin. A massive kitchen garden extends down to a creek, where wild rice grows. Deer, turkeys, grouse and the occasional raccoon hide in the surrounding woods. Berries and mushrooms are there for the picking, though beware of bears —they may be out there, too.
This is home, where Thielen began her search for the roots of Midwestern cooking.
If you don’t know her name, you’re not alone. Even the Wall Street Journal recently referred to her as a “little-known chef” in its description of the upcoming show. Though that may be the case on the national scene, it won’t be for long.
Thielen, 38, grew up in Park Rapids, Minn., a town of 3,000 near the headwaters of the Mississippi, 20 miles from where she lives today.
From her earliest days, food has been front and center for Thielen.
“I always had good food at my house. We often had a neighbor eating with us. And my mother always talked about food with us. ‘What are you hungry for?’ she would ask in the morning,” said Thielen. “I remember sometimes going to the store twice a day. We lived right in town. She was a good cook, and was consumed by it.
“My grandmother Dion was an excellent cook, as well, known for her baking, like many Midwestern women of that generation. She wasn’t afraid to tell anyone that she was good, either. She was self-promotional before it was in.”
A culinary education
Thielen left the North Woods to earn a degree in English from Macalester College in St. Paul. Then it was back to the woods, this time with Aaron, an artist, who had built a rustic cabin. They spent several summers there, living without electricity or running water for six months at a time — gardening season for Thielen. Three days a week she worked the breakfast shift at a German-American diner in Park Rapids, frying schnitzels and hash browns, basting eggs and toasting bread. “It was a great education. I loved the physical labor. I liked that kind of work,” Thielen said. “In addition to deep-frying fish patties, the owner also made a lot of homemade stuff. I learned to work fast. I learned the culture behind the scenes in restaurants, and I was hooked.”
Off-duty, she settled into the workload of “simple” living: hauling wood, pumping water and preparing garden-fresh food on a 1940s propane-fired Roper stove.
Winter months were spent in Minneapolis, until the year they headed to New York City, where Thielen enrolled in culinary school. Soon she found a spot in the kitchen at Danube, an Austrian restaurant run by chef David Bouley. That was the beginning of seven years working in the finest of New York restaurants, where Thielen learned the culinary techniques of top chefs Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Shea Gallante and their staffs. She may have been a long ways from Bologna Days in Pierz, Minn., where her parents grew up, but she was in her element, soaking up the skills and understanding of contemporary cooking.
In 2008, a year after their son was born, Thielen and Aaron moved back to the cabin, where they added electricity and water. While Aaron worked on his art, Thielen began writing about the Midwestern food she loved and the people who created it. Her articles made the pages of Saveur magazine and Men’s Journal, as well as the Star Tribune. Her Midwestern focus led to a two-book contract with Clarkson Potter, and a collection of stories from the Taste section earned her a James Beard award in 2011. Her first cookbook, “The New Midwestern Table,” will be released this month. The TV show serves as a kind of companion, each show focusing on a recipe or two from the book.
A champion of the region
It’s a delightful book, full of stories about growing up in a rural community, with recipes for the home cook who is looking for solid Midwestern fare with a contemporary edge (think fried corn, tomato carpaccio with horseradish ice, rosemary-infused brown butter chicken breasts), as well as recipes more familiar to the rural cook who knows fish and game (bear stew, eelpout almondine, sturgeon with a wild rice crust). Throughout the recipes, Thielen uses her own local markets and back-yard garden as a guidepost for ingredients.
There are cooking “projects” for the curious: homemade butter and cottage cheese, pickles of all sorts, ketchup and make-your-own braunschweiger and liqueurs, among them, as well as instructions for preparing salt pork and sauerkraut.
The book’s recipes fall into four types, including classics that have a Midwestern feel, such as chicken pot pie or hot dishes, that she has tweaked. “I made the best rendition I could and gave it a modern twist,” she said. Family recipes find a spot in her book, too: potato doughnuts and her grandmother’s thick white farmhouse bread.
There are dishes she calls hyper-regional that reflect a very specific place, such as chislic from South Dakota (fried cubes of lamb) and Nebraska runza (a meat-filled bun).
And then there are her own creations. “Some things I invented out of what I consider to be regional ingredients; these are more modern. It’s me cooking out of my garden,” she said. “I tend to get creative with my vegetables because I have so many of them.”
She has no illusion that this is a definitive body of regional recipes. “This is really just a beginning because there’s so much more to Midwestern cooking.”
As for Bologna Days: It’s not an annual event, but a weekly celebration that takes place over the lunch hour in two adjacent northern towns — Pierz and Genola. “It’s a way to get hot ring-bologna into you, fresh from the smoker, only a few minutes old,” she said. That’s when the sausage is magic.
While Thielen was at work on her book, Random House Television got into the business of acquiring TV projects, and they landed on hers. So did Lidia Bastianich, the Italian cook on PBS, who saw an early version of Thielen’s book and joined with Random House to produce the Food Network show.
“Once I read her book, I understood she is authentic, and a true professional in her approach to ingredients and food. Once I met her, I knew she had the personality for television, as well,” said Bastianich by e-mail from Italy.
“It’s refreshing to see someone address the food of the Midwest with such passion and understanding. She loves the Midwest and wants to share it with others,” said Bastianich. “Amy is a curious and quick learner who took her training and knowledge from her experience as a chef to dive into her roots.”
For Thielen, it was a collaboration that left her breathless. “It blew my mind to have Lidia standing in my kitchen. It’s all about the food with her. And she is so nice — as if your own grandmother was a legend. She was coaching me through the process,” said Thielen.
Production for the television show took place over two weeks. The first five days were spent driving around Midwestern states to capture film that features Thielen with food producers, people she and Aaron had met over the years on many car trips. The rest of the time was spent at her cabin kitchen, which was turned into a TV set. Even Aaron got into the act, writing and performing a song for the show’s intro.
“Coming home to Minnesota [from New York], I realized that the food we had at home is really great. After working in fine kitchens, my breakthrough moment was realizing that any good product can be made into something good,” said Thielen.
“If you eat a fresh potato, it’s a great experience. I don’t have to change anything.”
Spoken like a true Midwesterner.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste