Minnesota cook's 'Heartland Table' adds Midwest flavor to Food Network

LEE SVITAK DEAN | Updated 9/12/2013

From a tiny rural town in north-central Minnesota, Amy Thielen brings the voice of the Midwestern cook.

Amy Thielen of rural Park Rapids has a new cookbook "The New Midwestern Table" and a new Food Network show.
Photo courtesy Food Network

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.