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Cookbook review: Amy Thielen's 'Give a Girl a Knife', her story from rural kitchen to New York City, is worth a read

 
By Amy Thielen Clarkson Potter, 320 pages, $26
By Amy Thielen Clarkson Potter, 320 pages, $26
Published July 17, 2017

The same way that water needs heat to boil, Amy Thielen needs to cook.

Her story begins near her hometown in rural Minnesota, in a rustic off-the-grid house built by her boyfriend. No running water. No heat. There's a large vegetable garden, and in the kitchen she uses what she harvests and tries to cook like her Midwestern great-grandma.

That's the base for Thielen's memoir, Give a Girl a Knife, and even though there are no recipes in the book, Thielen's writing is evocative enough to convince a reader that her thoughts on food are worth reading.

Fans of the chef can turn to her James Beard Award-winning cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, for recipes. She also is a contributing editor for Saveur magazine and was the host of James Beard-nominated Heartland Table on the Food Network.

Give a Girl a Knife really takes off when Thielen and her then-boyfriend leave the Midwest and their 1880s lifestyle to find work and opportunity in New York City, she as a cook and he as an artist. In that off-the-grid house, Thielen regularly read food magazines and filled the margins of vintage cookbooks with notes, but her obsession with food quickly outgrew her cooking skills. She felt like she wasn't doing justice to the excellent vegetables from her garden.

In New York City, Thielen signs up for culinary school while her boyfriend, a sculptor, makes connections in the center of the art world. But culinary school proves to be rather unexciting compared to what Thielen envisioned. She's more motivated in the fine dining kitchens of several high-profile New York City chefs — David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Shea Gallante — where she earns her stripes working 80-hour weeks. Her life outside of work narrows to a sliver.

Thielen is a vivid writer who will have you zooming through page after page, hungry to know more about the kind of food she's encountering and the characters she meets in this world. She steams her eggs "until the yolks clouded over." Early on, while cooking on the line in one restaurant, her schnitzel is cooked too slow and "puffed properly into a toffee-colored balloon, but it wore bedsores of blackness on its bottom."

Though she had no fine dining experience when she started working at Danube, Bouley's Austrian restaurant in TriBeCa, the food echoed the German-American fare she grew up eating. "The place whipped up my sleeping childhood taste memories to a froth," she writes.

As Thielen's stay in New York continues, she feels like she is losing a part of herself.

One night on the job, she makes pie using her grandmother's recipe and later finds the crust is tough rather than tender. She's strayed farther from her roots than she thought.

Thielen wrestles with coming to terms with the food of her Midwestern upbringing and how it fits in with the kind of food she learned to cook through her culinary training.

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After seven years, she and her now-husband returned to their home in the woods. Like her life in rural Minnesota, the book's pace slows down. With a knife and the knowledge to wield it, Thielen is given a way of life, whether it's in the Midwest or Manhattan.

Ileana Morales Valentine can be reached at ileanamvalentine@gmail.com.