Molly Yeh's Unlikely Rise to Culinary Fame
How a Juilliard-trained percussionist from Brooklyn moved to East Grand Forks and became one of America's favorite celebrity chefs
Yeh brings Hagen a slice of chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream
photo by chantell quernemoen
To say that Molly Yeh lives in the middle of nowhere is at least half correct.
She lives on a farm outside of East Grand Forks in northwest Minnesota, near the geographic center of North America. To drive there from Minneapolis takes about five hours, though it feels much farther. Approaching the North Dakota border, hills flatten into floodplain. Trees thin out. The wind picks up. No place in the United States is colder, on average, save for Alaska.
The farm has a white house, a red tractor, a cluster of steel silos, a vegetable patch, a Quonset hut (a phrase that Yeh loves), and a chicken coop refashioned from a vintage children’s playhouse. The chickens are collectively named Macaroni. The rooster, who serves as Yeh’s alarm clock, is Tofu. Out back, nearly to the horizon, are sugar beet fields.
Yeh, pronounced “yay!” (exclamation optional), moved here in 2013 from Brooklyn, New York, with Nick Hagen—then her boyfriend, now her husband—whose family has farmed this area for five generations. The following spring, Yeh and Hagen took over the farm from his grandparents, who left behind two matching Buick LeSabres and a curious rack on the kitchen wall, a kind of soup-can dispensary with tilted shelves (still labeled “Cream of Mushroom” and “Tomato Soup”), so that when one can was taken away—bound for hotdish—another behind it would slide into place.
A lot of hotdish was made here—and still is, in a way. Yeh now uses the kitchen to create recipes for her blog, my name is yeh, in which she scrambles Lutheran cookbook classics and baking staples with her Jewish and Chinese roots. It is one of the most popular food blogs in the country. Her first cookbook, Molly on the Range, came out last fall, having sold to Rodale publishing for around $250,000, top dollar for a cookbook and a fortune for a first-time author. The book has been praised by the New York Times and Real Simple as well as more millennial media such as Popsugar and Paste—everyone can agree on Funfetti.
Funfetti cake has become one of her signatures
photo by molly yeh
Yeh, who is 27, writes with a firehose, eschewing capitalization and encompassing both pastoral pleasure and hummus-induced farting. She swears at least as much as bad boy chef/television personality Anthony Bourdain, and with more self-deprecation. “I force myself on the treadmill because health,” she wrote for the Huffington Post in 2015, “but also because I just started writing a cookbook and if my Freshman 15 experience was any indication of what my first cookbook is going to do to me, I’m fucked.”
“My family doesn’t have a filter,” Yeh says like no Midwesterner ever. That took some adjusting. But she doesn’t want to adjust too much. She wants her eyes, and mouth, to remain wide open. “It’s easy for a New Yorker to think of this place as flyover country,” she says. “I’ve trained myself to look more closely at what’s actually here. I’m the only window into East Grand Forks that my friends in New York have, and by focusing on that perspective it’s like I’m writing a letter to a friend.”
Her enthusiasm for all things tater tot and “salads” without greens, the zeal of the new convert, has elevated a region not known for its evangelism. “Midwest cuisine hasn’t really gotten out of the Midwest,” Yeh says, still a bit surprised. “So many people around here don’t want to have the spotlight on them. They’re not the type of people who will open a hotdish or lefse place in New York.”
Molly Yeh makes a batch of hibicus almond marshmallows in the East Grand Forks farmhouse once inhabited by her in-laws
photo by chantell quernemoen
For all of her fish-out-of-water perspective, Yeh is actually a native Midwesterner. She grew up in Glenview, a suburb of Chicago. But her mother, who has Jewish heritage, is from New York. And her father, who has Chinese heritage, is from Los Angeles. And that may have made all the difference. There were frequent forays into Chicago’s Chinatown and good Mexican restaurants. There were very few salads—Jell-O or otherwise—without vegetables.
Yeh’s father has played the clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1977, and Molly grew up backstage. After learning the violin and piano, she was drawn to percussion. “Everything about my personality pointed to wanting to hit things—except people,” she says. She joined the area’s best youth orchestra, formed a percussion trio called Beat 3, and started winning prestigious national competitions. She was, in the coolest possible sense, a band camp kid.
She made her Carnegie Hall debut at 17. Already at ease in the spotlight, she told the audience the names she had accorded her instruments (Michelle the small marimba, Roxanne the larger marimba) and outed her mother as an absent-minded eBayer (she won a set of tabla drums for Molly before noticing the $200 shipping fee). Molly’s trio performed that day with one member balancing a lawn mower on his chin.
Yeh’s father had graduated from the Juilliard School, in New York, and Molly followed him there after high school to study percussion. After graduating from the conservatory in 2011, Yeh chose not to pursue an orchestra post. The prospect of working her way up through backwater bands just to sit in the wings, as percussion roles are often limited in orchestral performances, made her restless. “I like being in control, making something from start to finish,” she says. “There were no ‘oh shit’ moments after college, but there was a realization that at some point I should find what I want to do.”
She had already begun her blog, in her third year of college, which mutated with her interests—restaurants for a while, then schnitzel for about a month—and bore a title (my name is yeh) generic enough to withstand the whiplash. After graduation, she wrote for Juilliard’s newspaper and took occasional percussion gigs. She was drifting and enjoying it, mostly, while trying to imagine a place to land.
Regarding this sweet creation, Yeh writes: "It's kind of like this whole thing is a muffin top... And are they kind of just an unfrosted mini cake in disguise as a more socially accepted breakfast food?"
photo by molly yeh
To the extent that she had noticed a shy trombonist at Juilliard named Nick Hagen, well, she soon forgot him. He was older, serious—“an honest, grounded, gentle human being,” she writes in her book. Yeh was “basically the opposite of all that”—a party girl—“and I had a thing for meaty, douchey party boys with good text-messaging game.”
Hagen had recently gotten a tattoo. It was in plain sight of everyone at the party, including Yeh, who hadn’t seen him in several years. Something “squiggly…with jagged spikes coming out of it,” she later wrote. She had no idea what it was.
“It’s a sugar beet,” Hagen said, which clarified nothing for Yeh. “You grow them, you make sugar out of them,” he explained. Or maybe that came later. In any case, later came soon enough—he asked her out.
They slid without much fuss into a relationship, nesting and Netflixing in Brooklyn, beginning to resent New York’s quality-of-life hassles, when Hagen suggested they visit East Grand Forks. He showed her the wide-open land that was homesteaded by his great-great-grandfather. He showed her the Simplot factory down the road, which makes tater tots. He showed her his grandparents’ farm, with its stuck-in-the-’60s house.
“I thought a farm was a romantic, glorified garden,” Yeh admits. But the reality still appealed. No commute. No sun-blocking buildings. Nowhere you’d care to go that takes longer than a few skits on A Prairie Home Companion to drive to. A couple weeks later, they resolved to move.
Yeh and Hagen taking a break from work; and the resident brood of chickens, collectively named Macaroni
PORTRAIT: CHANTELL QUERNEMOEN. CHICKENS: MOLLY YEH
They rented an apartment in downtown Grand Forks at first, to ease themselves in. Yeh took a job at a bakery—the 1 a.m. pastry shift—and became a “Betty blogger,” one of several freelancers who write and develop recipe ideas for General Mills’ website. It wasn’t until they moved to the farm, however, that Yeh’s own blog began to click. The more Yeh immersed herself in farm life, the more her readers responded.
Her recipes, starting with pretzel challah, began to go viral on Pinterest, where she now has more than 47,000 followers. She was invited to write for the stylish back-to-the-land magazine Modern Farmer and upscale cooking websites such as Food52. By 2015, just two years after leaving New York, she was awarded Saveur magazine’s Blog of the Year.
Yeh has been called the millennials’ Pioneer Woman, the food blogger who followed her husband to an Oklahoma ranch and now oversees a multimedia empire channeling the simple life: cookbooks, kitchen product lines, a general store. Yeh has stoked a similar, if hipper, yearning. In a column called “I Like This Bitch’s Life,” New York magazine coveted Yeh’s apple-picking picnics (courtesy of her own apple trees), cute farm lunches (featuring kale, hummus, and shakshuka, an egg-based Israeli dish), and the time she rendered her farm entirely in gingerbread.
But Yeh says the mantle of agrarian avatar is misplaced. “I see that people react to the chickens and farmy things in the blog,” she says, “but I’m not trying to create a lifestyle blog. You wouldn’t even know I’m a farm wife. I’m not baking biscuits and chickens for all the guys who come in. I’m not going to wrangle a cow. Half of our groceries come from SuperTarget.”
Nick Fauchald, a former editor at Every Day with Rachael Ray and Food & Wine magazines who is now a top cookbook developer in New York, believes Yeh would have won over readers wherever she settled. “Had she not moved to East Grand Forks and married a farmer, if she were still living in an apartment in New York, she would still be successful,” he says. For every Molly Yeh, there are 10,000 wannabe food bloggers who don’t rise to her level, he notes—and it’s not luck holding them back, it’s talent.
Homegrown produce being made into butternut bacon, and apple hotdish; hummus with shakshuka on top, a.k.a. humshuka
butternut squash: chantell quernemoen. Humshuka: molly yeh
Yeh writes like the fun, far-off friend you never had, mixing fabulous tales (last December, she and Hagen helped make holiday cookies at the White House) with relatable realism (Hagen got food poisoning and “barfed his brains out”). She takes beautiful food photos, in which even a simple cheddar-thyme scone gleams in the grey light of her kitchen. Her creative recipes, a modern spin on the nostalgic pleasures of scratch cooking, go down easy. “Her success is not that hard to figure out,” Fauchald says, “just look at the work.”
For the first couple months on the farm, Yeh rarely showered. She hardly moved from the kitchen. She put in the hours to revise every dish, every image, until it was exactly what she wanted, and it shows. “I’ve always had this drive to practice, whether it’s music or food,” she says. “That’s my secret weapon.”
On a cold Friday, the farm is quiet. The sky is gray. The fields have been emptied of sugar beets. Yeh is in the kitchen, experimenting with crackers made from cheese, pumpkin donuts topped with buttercream and rainbow sprinkles, and a spicy vegetable stew she calls pita ribollita (described on her blog as “…what would happen if chili took a trip to the middle east and had to leave all of its meat behind at customs, ya dig?”).
Yeh and Hagen renovated the kitchen when they moved in, tearing up the yellowed linoleum, replacing the shelves with new ones from Ikea and the refrigerator with a retro-looking SMEG model from West Elm. The soup-can shelf is now stuffed with sprinkles and spices from Italy, Israel, and elsewhere. But most of the new touches are personal: a walnut lefse stick, a massive slab of kitchen table, a heavy-duty cookie cutter shaped like Minnesota—all made by Hagen.
From afar, it seems conceivable that Yeh may have agreed to come here only briefly, knowing her outsider narrative would appeal to readers and publishers. But up close, such careerist assumptions fade. Yeh and Hagen were married on the farm in 2014, and signs reading Ceremony and Party still mark the buildings. Last fall, Hagen joined the board of Grand Forks’ food co-op. They’ve talked about starting a concert series in the historic downtown theater.
Hagen’s parents live across the street, and his relatives have shared recipes with Yeh—what she calls Midwest Xtreme: cookie salad, Velveeta fudge hotdish. Hagen’s dad, encountering one of Yeh’s cakes, will ask with xtreme Midwest modesty for “one cubic inch” of it.
Whatever her reasons for coming, she’s stayed because she can.
It used to be that most dedicated performers, writers, and artists had to move to the coast in order for their stars to rise. But the internet has enabled creative types to gain notice no matter where they live; and for an independent operator such as Yeh, rural Minnesota’s low-key lifestyle allows her to better focus on her work.
In the still of the afternoon, broken only by trucks laden with sugar beets rumbling by and the pinging of social media on her phone, Yeh can concentrate. Even now, Hagen says, more than three years in, Yeh prefers solitude: “There are days when I’m the only living soul she knows for 10 miles around, and she’ll still kick me out of the kitchen.”