When a stranger reached out to Zoë François on Instagram and asked if her teenage daughter could stay with François on a visit to the Twin Cities, François realized things had changed.
The pastry chef and bestselling cookbook author had long had a public presence on the social media platform. But since her show, "Zoë Bakes," began airing on the Magnolia Network and Discovery+ last year, more people have been transported to her Minneapolis kitchen for genial lessons on cake decorating and the art of meringue. As a testament to François' warm home and welcoming demeanor, some fans have started to think of her as a friend.
"I have to say I was very touched by the whole thing — and she did not stay here," François said about the interaction. "It's just funny when you open your home up in that way, people actually feel invited to come over."
Becoming a television personality "has been really fun in ways that I maybe hadn't predicted," François said.
She's not the only Minnesota chef whose life has been transformed by the spotlight. With "Zoë Bakes," François joins a growing cadre of local food stars who are representing the state on the airwaves.
Justin Sutherland might be one of the most visible. He is currently appearing on three shows airing on different networks, including as a contestant on the third season of "Guy Fieri's Tournament of Champions," which premieres Feb. 27 on the Food Network. What Sutherland has been able to convey about his home state on television is close to his heart.
"It's not just Midwest meat and potatoes," he said. "Minnesota — although we're Midwestern, we're kind of a cultural melting pot. We're showing the vast variety of food that comes out of here."
Every kind of food show has tapped Minnesota talent. Sutherland, a "Top Chef" alum and winner of "Iron Chef America," has cornered the market on fast-paced competitions that pit restaurant chefs against one another, and is now transitioning into more of a host role.
For educational cooking lessons that touch on the state's agricultural roots, there's Amy Thielen's "Heartland Table," and Molly Yeh's "Girl Meets Farm."
For challenging and enlightening conversations about food and culture, check out "Relish," hosted by Union Hmong Kitchen chef Yia Vang, and the Andrew Zimmern-produced shows "Family Dinner," "What's Eating America" and "Breaking Bread."
Perhaps no one has had more of a hand in boosting the Minnesota food scene on television than Zimmern.
Appearing on TV for more than 15 years, beginning with the long run of the "Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern" on the Travel Channel, Zimmern and his production company Intuitive Content are behind a number of food-related shows that feature local chefs, including "Zoë Bakes," a web series with Travail chef Mike Brown and an upcoming TV project with Vang.
"I wanted to make as much content here as I could," Zimmern said. "I think people are seeing that we are a hotbed of talented, creative people that speak from the heart."
What viewers across the country might not realize, he said, is that Minnesota is already at the center of almost every food story. Whether talking about baking or bacon, traditions in the kitchen and on the farm have always been celebrated here in how we pass on knowledge to future generations, and in the way we eat.
"Look at all the baking shows that are on TV right now. Minnesotans have never stopped baking from scratch, when in other big cities, it kind of got lost," Zimmern said. "People talk about farm to table. We don't have to reconnect to farming in Minnesota. We all live in it."
The increased visibility of Minnesotans on TV comes at a time when the state, and the city of Minneapolis in particular, have gotten outsize attention in national media — and not just because of its world-class restaurant scene. Local food celebrities are taking on the additional challenge of telling more of the city's story.
"We literally started filming the show during the riots after George Floyd was murdered, so this show and all of the other shows are coming at a very interesting time for this city," said François, who takes viewers on picturesque "field trips" to visit with farmers, bakers and food producers throughout the Twin Cities.
"We all love this city so much and there's so much to this city that the world doesn't see," François said. "We're still eating, we're still trying to support our restaurants, and bakers, and creative people. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do. But we're multidimensional, and we have tons to offer."
Here's a list of Minnesota's celebrity chefs — and where to watch them:
The Travail Collective co-owner and chef might just be a budding TV star. He is hosting a fast-paced web show for the Hy-Vee grocery chain called "Hot Mess," produced by Andrew Zimmern's Intuitive Content and local agency Griffin Archer. Common ingredients become as dangerous as hand grenades when less-than-stellar cooks try and fail to slice, stir and fold them into easy recipes. Partway through the hilarity, Brown enters and coaches them into completing a simple dish. Watch at hstv.com/show/hot-mess.
On "Zoë Bakes," the bestselling cookbook author teaches viewers how to make their own versions of her elegant baked goods, then takes them on a tour of the Twin Cities area's bakeries and farms. In the first season, which is currently airing on Magnolia Network and available to stream on Discovery+, François checks in to Pleasant Grove Pizza Farm and Minneapolis' Copper Hen, and guests include cookbook author and blogger Sarah Kieffer and Pie & Mighty baker Rachel Swan.
Since he crushed the competition in a 2018 episode of "Iron Chef America," the St. Paul chef's star has risen — fast. He made a mark competing on "Top Chef," and is currently one of three chefs on the comedic food competition "Fast Foodies," now in its second season on TruTV. As the host of a new show, "Taste the Culture," which premiered this week on TBS and TNT, Sutherland travels the country to share the stories of chefs who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. And starting Feb. 27, he will compete against 31 other food celebs, bracket-style, for $100,000 on "Guy Fieri's Tournament of Champions" on Food Network. You'll also spot him as a guest judge on current seasons of "Chopped," "Guy's Grocery Games" and "Beat Bobby Flay." While all of those appearances keep him busy traveling, you may catch a glimpse of him at his St. Paul restaurant, Handsome Hog.
Set in Thielen's northern Minnesota cabin, the Food Network series "Heartland Table" introduced viewers to the ingredients of the region and instructed them on how to wield them in fuss-free comforting classics. The show, which premiered in 2013 and ran for two seasons, can be streamed on Amazon Prime for a fee. But TV is only one medium that Thielen has mastered. She won a James Beard Award in 2014 for her cookbook "The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes." Her follow-up, "Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others," comes out this fall.
As the host of "Relish," TPT's web series on the international flavors found in Minnesota, Vang's wonderment and curiosity shows when he meets with a diverse array of local chefs to explore the dishes that tell their stories, from potica to Guatemalan mole. Next up, Vang has an under-wraps project with producer Andrew Zimmern heading to a not-yet-named network. Stay tuned.
Living just a stone's throw away from the the North Dakota border, Minnesotans claim Yeh, an Illinois native, as one their own. On the instructional Food Network series "Girl Meets Farm," she makes comforting meals that draw from her Jewish and Chinese heritage and her Great Plains locale, all from her charming kitchen. Last fall, she starred in "Molly Yeh's Magnolia Adventure," where she visited Chip and Joanna Gaines in Waco, Texas, to get decorating inspiration for her farmhouse renovation. Yeh is also a sunny host of cooking and baking competitions, including Food Network's "Spring Baking Championship," which premieres Feb. 28.
What hasn't Zimmern done? Reruns from his long-running "Bizarre Foods" empire continue to air, and the Minnesota chef and TV personality keeps churning out new and timely takes on the culinary travelogue, from "The Zimmern List" to his latest endeavor for the Magnolia Network and Discovery+, "Family Dinner." That show has him traveling the country sharing meals and conversation with families after two years of pandemic-related social starvation. A show in which Zimmern cooks with found and foraged foods over a live fire, called "Andrew Zimmern's Wild Game Kitchen," is coming this year to the Outdoor Channel. As a producer, he has a hand in series that showcase fellow chefs, including Vang and François, as well as a 2021 Super Bowl ad featuring Justin Sutherland and Ann Kim.