A Saveur contributing editor and James Beard Award–winning cookbook author reflects on her Midwestern upbringing as inspiration for her culinary pursuits.
The frenzied, behind-the-scenes activity within New York’s leading restaurant kitchens has been well-documented in numerous cooking memoirs of recent years. Massive egos running rampant, razor-sharp precision and timing demanded at every moment, 80-hour work weeks—Thielen (The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes, 2013), who hosts a Food Network show, delivers plenty of these now-familiar revelations in her debut memoir. The author’s journey begins in the late 1990s, when, freshly arrived from Minnesota with her boyfriend (and future husband), Aaron, she landed a job as a line chef at David Bouley’s famed Danube. She later rose to more prominent positions under such notables as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud. For several years, the author and Aaron shuttled back and forth between New York and their home in a deeply rural section of Minnesota, where they live largely off the land. As Thielen contemplated how her future in the industry would unfold, her objectives stretched beyond the predictable aspirations of opening a restaurant or even continuing in New York. She reflects on the values of family and community bonds and recalls how her culinary instincts were instilled by her mother’s less pretentious skills as a home cook: “Her caramels, her bacon-fried rice, and her Cesar salad (trademarked with a burning amount of garlic) made her a minor star in our neighborhood circle, and in our lives.” Thielen’s narrative journey evolves somewhat passively, and she offers few fresh insights into the food industry or the high-end restaurant scene, yet her musings on ingredients and flavors are engaging: “The joy of lemon cannot stand alone; it needs sugar or olive oil, something to bring it back to earth. Vinegar literally cries out for fat. Fat falls flat without salt or sugar. Chile heat sings with brown sugar. And bitterness, well, that needs it all.”
A warm, mildly immersive memoir documenting how Thielen found her calling by embracing her down-home influences.