Chef, author, and television host Amy Thielen released a new book at the end of August titled, “Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others.” We talked to Thielen from her home in Park Rapids about the new publication, her third, and her philosophy that anyone can be a cook.
Your first book, “The New Midwestern Table,” elevated what many thought of Midwest cuisine as a celebration of the land and as a melting pot. Do you think Midwest cooking is having its moment, finally?
Yeah, I think in the last 10 years it’s really grown up and grown into itself. Midwest cooking is a lot of things, and the answer to “What is it?” or “How do I talk about it?” doesn’t get easier. Talking about restaurants in the Twin Cities: phenomenal. At home, people are just still doing their family traditions. And there are so many different types of families. You don’t have to cook with just this small repertoire of ingredients. Farmers markets have changed cooking so much. My last book was 10 years ago, and farmers markets are now so popular. They are teaching environments where farmers can tell people what to do with these things, and they are so diverse.
You put so much of yourself, your routine, and your home into your work. Your second book was a memoir, but we still want to ask, were you born to be a chef or are taste and instinct learned?
In the words of Remy [from Pixar’s “Ratatouille”], “Anyone can cook.” I think anybody can be a chef. You don’t have to grow up at your mother’s hip doing everything in the kitchen. Although I didn’t really grow up learning to cook from my mom, she is a fantastic cook. I grew up watching her cook, and there’s a big difference. People are always asking, “Do you cook with your son? Are you side by side teaching him how to cut?” No, he’s just watching. I didn’t pick up a knife for a long time, but I watched and shopped with her. She dragged us everywhere. There is so much to being a creative person who likes to cook, and it doesn’t mean you have to be a chef. It’s that you enjoy shopping and know what you’re looking for. I teach my son, “These are the good garlics, theses are the bad garlics. You can tell.” And he’s like, “OK, great.” And [for] teaching taste, we go around the table and say, “Do you like this?” We’re not complaining; we’re saying it could be a little better. That is steeped in how I grew up. My family had the meat market, and the details are in the potatoes and pork. Nothing fancy. It’s about appreciating what you cook, starting with the ingredients.
Tell me about the new book.
I’m really excited about this book. It’s been six years in the making. Now is the perfect time for it. It’s about cooking for other people, [and] it’s a menu cookbook. That is an interesting thing and made it kind of hard. I see why people don’t do more of them.
I’m super happy about the book visually as well as what’s in it. The recipes are the recipes I have been making over and over again for more than 20 years, some of which I have never shared. A lot of these things that I really, really like will be repertoire builders, and you don’t have to follow the menus. I get asked a lot, “How do you make a menu? How do you make an experience?” This book sets out to answer that. How you pull together a plate. How you compose that whole experience.
Is this cookbook for people who know how to cook, don’t know how to cook, or somewhere in between?
Both. It has plenty of instructions and visual cues to teach those who don’t cook that much to make something that really turns out well. At the same time, there are some more advanced recipes in there for people who want a challenge. I assume those people don’t measure their salt. I know my people.
When you think about cooking versus entertaining, is it more about the pleasure or technique for you?
Both. There’s the sharing what you make, but you gotta get there. The best way to learn technique is to just start cooking. You can learn more from a really good recipe than you can from a class or school. It’s the equivalent of learning to play piano by scales or memorizing a difficult song. It’s the touch; it’s how people handle things. I can always tell when I am with someone who is a good cook by how they touch the ingredients. There is a lightness and assuredness to how they touch and move. They have a feeling in their fingers. These recipes in the book will get you there. I am at a place in my own cooking where I don’t want to measure, scale, and take temperatures. That makes me question my intuition. I do it for the book when people need a backup, but I really want to encourage people to know when it’s done. It’s done when it’s done. When you’ve made the dish enough times, you know it and you’re just cooking rather than cooking and reading a recipe. Ideally you do it a number of times, and then it’s just about cooking while talking and drinking a glass of wine.
What are you doing today that pushes your limits in the kitchen? What’s getting you excited?
I am trying to make and develop something really simple that I am going to call our daily bread. I want to make a focaccia that fits into my day. You wake up in the morning and make it and don’t have to think about it before you’ve had your coffee. I then bake it at 5 o’clock in the evening for my family, and we use it for sandwich bread and don’t have to buy fake bread with preservatives. I just made hard boiled egg and spicy sardines on focaccia for breakfast.
If you get to know someone through their cooking, how much of their entertaining is about putting their own personality out there?
A lot of personality goes into cooking for others. Especially the way I do it. It’s all about the feeling of family and feeling welcome, even if it’s new acquaintances. I keep it casual here. This is the north woods. I have a way of making people feel welcome. I think I do. I hope I do. Part of it is being a relaxed host and not stressing. Keeping one sauce to make in front of people. Letting them join in if they want to help, but I don’t put people to work. It’s about being real, with eccentricities and all.
Finish the sentence: I can’t live without my…
I can’t live without my herb garden right now.
We talked a little bit at the beginning about the meat market and watching your mom cook. What memories influence your entertaining the most?
It’s two things, it’s not just one. It’s the casual vibe that I grew up with, where we had parties in the garage for the whole block, the whole town. Literally, parties in garages where people feel comfortable in rural settings. My time in New York kitchens taught me a different level of hospitality. I aim for predicting what my guest is going to want. I know they want spreads, a real drink, and homemade lemonade in the veins of the kid melting down. Letting people sit back and say thank you. They feel relaxed and good. I don’t serve right away. I grew up knowing that dinner was ready when the meat is done. And still today, that’s when we eat. Meat is done, and we take 30 minutes to assemble the salad. So, I can’t tell you when to come. Round about dinner time, 30 minutes after the meat is done.
If you could change one perception on cooking or entertaining for others, what would it be?
I want people to be fearless. These recipes work, so you can rely on that. While making these recipes, I failed so many times, and I failed publicly. I don’t always go with my tried and true. I will experiment for people. If I cook for people, I think about what they are hungry for [and about] what I am hungry for. When you think of others, it changes your creativity. Cooking for others puts you in new territory, and it’s OK when things don’t all work out. It’s OK if you have a few spectacular things and an “Oops—I burned the nuts because we were talking.” We all burn nuts, right? Totally relatable. You have more nuts, and you redo them, or you don’t have nuts.
So much talk of nuts. What’s your go-to nut recipe?
There’s something I do a lot. It’s butter-roasted walnuts in a cast iron pan on the stovetop, not in the oven to toast; that’s where they go to die and burn. This one is at the stovetop with butter, herbs, garlic, rosemary sprigs that you don’t cut up but fish out later. You just baste them in butter and oil very, very slowly. And that’s your dressing for salad, and you save some nuts for morning oats. It’s delicious.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone who wants to cook more and entertain more?
Just say yes. Don’t worry about the house. Just worry about two rooms, and close all the other doors. I wrote in the introduction that, after the pandemic, we realized how much we need people, and “Company” is a play on the Midwestern thing of having people over. It’s about having company and people keeping you company. Just relax, and no one will care as much about the food as you, my fellow cook. Remember, everything tastes better at someone else’s home.