Just before leaving Bouley, one of New York City’s famed haute cuisine kitchens that Amy Thielen cycled through during her seven-year journey as a line cook, Chef David Bouley remarked, “Amy’s like a little bird, flitting from place to place.” This, she confesses, is true: “The most manic, improvisational, restless chef in New York was calling me out as an itinerant flake, and he wasn’t wrong. I had to admit: I was a bird. A snowbird. A returning swan. I was always on migration.”
Thielen’s memoir “Give a Girl a Knife” tracks her migration between her non-electric home outside of Two Inlets, Minn., where she and her artist husband, Aaron, grow tomato varietals in the summer, and her stints as a line cook in some of Manhattan’s most acclaimed kitchens (Danube, db, 66, Cru).
Drawn to idiosyncratic crossroads — “between rural and urban, high-flung and low-down, garbage juice and black truffle juice” — Thielen thrives on the intensity, carnality and artistry required of cooks in fine dining. In these kitchens, the food is always “beaming in the eye of the storm” and cooks have to learn to trust their sensations enough to “hit the outer edge of perfection … enough to color right on top of the lines, not inside them.”
Thielen’s culinary education takes place cooking alongside the culinary world’s maestros (David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Shea Gallante) where she pulls grueling 80-hour weeks amid high-octane testosterone and glamorous ingredients. Like most women in these kitchens, she’s rarely allowed to be in charge in the meat station, relegated almost always to the vegetables.
The most important aspect of what Thielen learns as a chef is how to apply masterful techniques with something less tangible: seduction. Watching Bouley cook and plate in a dress shirt and cuff links, Thielen observes the way he concocts sauces that “seemed to have been devised by plumbing the depths of the color itself,” Thielen writes. “The mango-curry-saffron mixed far-flung flavors, but tasted like a totally natural fusing of the elements that make yellow. Ocean herbal sauce — composed of three herb oils as well as fennel, celery, and garlic purees — mined the color green.”
His sauces, she notices, “were so vivid they were almost libidinous — virile and romantic at the same time, like him.” Bouley’s artistry as a chef relies on a fundamentally elemental, instinctual confidence to cook food that sweeps you off your feet by making you nostalgic for something familiar. Bouley’s mantra, “Don’t give me what I ask for. Give me what I want,” is one that reverberates throughout her narrative.
Where the first half of the memoir delves into her professional influence, the second is devoted to reclaiming her Midwestern roots, primarily through her mother and grandmother’s homemade dishes and “housewifely arts.” Their cooking hands served as “the turning motors for our minds,” and what Thielen inherits from them is a “compulsion” no matter how arduous the tasks involved. This, alongside the ability to keep a countertop clean (85% of what she says it takes to be a line cook), is the backbone to her ability to succeed in fine dining kitchens.
Thielen also recovers the ways her Midwestern ethos — although not laced with truffle oil cooked in veal sauce— became increasingly pivotal to her understanding of feeding people. Growing up, recycled plastic gallon ice cream buckets were containers for a garden variety of potato salads and a memorable “crushed-ramen-mock-crab-almond salad” shared at potlucks. But more than anything else, the buckets were cultural symbols. The insistence on modesty and a refusal to Instagram filter one’s work marked a different attitude: one where feeding the community presided over hailing the chef.
“Many of the traditional Midwestern favorites require a lot of time and effort to make but no one would ever want to say so,” she writes. “A neighbor lady might make potato salad by the gallon, spending an hour dicing potatoes into baby-bite-size cubes, but then, with consummate modesty, as if to say ‘No big deal,’ she would carry it around in some junky, old reused plastic tub. If people sometimes wonder why Midwestern food hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves, I want to say that it’s not the food, which is generally quite good; it’s the ... self-deprecating plastic storage vessels.”
Whatever the container or cultural setting, what underpins every chef’s passion behind their craft are their roots — whose twin pillars are ingredients and people. On a trip to the French countryside to visit the famed three Michelin star Michel Bras, Thielen recalls, “all of the butter in France was richer than any I’ve ever known, but this one tasted of sunburned grass and of time left to sit out and absorb the local humors and moods. Real cultured butter tastes like culture.”
After seven years in haute cuisine, Thielen decides to return to rural Minnesota. As she confesses, “I was a proud Midwesterner, and yet here I was, making purees instead of stews; I never made anything that called up my personal history.” The best chefs weren’t just mastering technique, they were drawing inspiration from their taste memories — and it was time for her to return to parsnips, potatoes and onions.
Since moving back to Minnesota, Thielen has established herself as one of the Midwest’s most important culinary voices, but her memoir doesn’t delve into this. I wish Thielen included how re-planting herself back home after years of insisting on the benefits of living a peripatetic life help establish her career as a cookbook writer (“The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes” won a James Beard award in 2014) and Food Network host (“Heartland Table”) that highlights the regional Midwestern cuisine.
Overall however, Thielen’s ode to living at the crossroads of culinary high and low offers thoughtful insights into the life of the chef, highlighting that when, “you give a girl a knife,” as her mom did when Amy was young, you pass on a legacy: that she will learn how to use it, and someday “consider that knife an extension of her hand, as wedded to her finger as a nail.”
Mirakhor is a writer and professor.
Clarkson Potter: 320 pp., $26