Q+A: Molly Yeh’s Minnesota Spirit

Star of the Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm,” Yeh talks recipes, what songs make her dance in the kitchen, and Thanksgiving advice
Molly Yeh
Molly Yeh

Chantell and Brett Quernemoen

Meet Molly Yeh. She’s a mixture of eager-to-learn kid sister and wise Jewish grandmother. She understands and respects who she is as a Minnesotan and honors her heritage and ancestors while raising a family, opening a restaurant, and starring in the Food Network show “Girl Meets Farm” from her “global” headquarters in East Grand Forks. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Your recipes feel very personal, and your dishes have a balance and story. They celebrate your heritage and this place you call home. What story do you want your food to tell? 

When I think about food, it’s deeply intertwined with the story. I think about how you can find recipes for anything on the internet these days. You can get takeout for anything. Even in East Grand Forks, I can get sushi, I can get ramen, I can get Udon noodles, I can get Somali food. We live in the future, and any food is accessible. Writing a recipe for a dish that is readily available online—that everyone knows already—is not something that I wanted to do. I am here to tell a story through food, to celebrate history, to celebrate my ancestry. Jews are storytellers. I feel like recipes are part of these stories I want to tell, to celebrate traditions and to create new traditions with my family.

For me, of course, the food has to be delicious. But you can do so much more with flavors, as far as finding meaning in them and telling stories and creating memories. So much of my book “Home Is Where the Eggs Are” is about creating new memories with my family, about celebrating old traditions, and celebrating my ancestors’ stories. I want to tell Bernie, my 3-year-old, about her ancestors that came over from Norway. I want her to eat lefse as a way of celebrating that story. Yesterday, we made homemade potstickers for her first day of preschool, and I want her to know where her family came from. Of course, we know lefse, potstickers, and challah are delicious, but I also want her to know why we eat these foods and what are those stories wrapped up in those flavors.

What recipe do you want Bernie to cook for her own kids to tell the story of Molly Yeh?

You’re gonna make me cry. Chicken-and-stars soup, 100%. One of my favorite things about being a mother is being able to make her chicken-and-stars soup during naptime on Sundays. And if one of her earliest memories is waking up from her nap on a Sunday and smelling chicken soup wafting through the house, I will feel like I have done my job as a mother.

What inspires you most on a daily basis? 

It’s my family. It’s flavors of this region. I’m still learning recipes of the Upper Midwest. Growing up in Chicago and then living in New York, I thought, “Man, I know all the foods.” I moved up here. I heard the word “hotdish” for the first time. I heard the words cookie and salad put together for the first time. I was so confused, so intrigued, and so excited at the same time. Church cookbooks are a huge inspiration to me, and I just have so much fun. Digging deep into those stories about why cookies got put into a salad, why pages of Jell-O salad exist.

A lot of it is learning about my new home and my husband’s ancestors and passing those stories down to my girls, Bernie and Ira. It’s about learning about ingredients from all over the world. It is such a priority of mine to learn about recipes of this region, but at the same time I’m still learning about my Chinese heritage. Every so often I’ll need to call up my grandma to get her recipe for certain dishes she cooked for my dad. That’s a huge inspiration for me as well.

You must have befriended (author and food celebrity) Amy Thielen by now?

I love Amy Thielen! “The New Midwestern Table” is like my Bible. I keep it by my bed. I read it just as a book. I mean, I cook a million recipes. She is an amazing human and storyteller. We always say Midwesterners are cut from a different cloth. There’s a good work ethic.

I’m glad you mentioned the Midwestern work ethic. Can you expand on that?

That’s another thing that was so eye-opening and so inspirational to me moving here. We moved here, and my husband joined the farm and said, “See you.” And then it was harvest time, and I didn’t see him for weeks. That’s insane. But I saw how much they care about the farm as a business and what that kind of work ethic is. It’s something in the air here, and Amy represents that, too. There’s such a great level of work ethic here, and it shows how much people care, and that is truly inspirational.

What song makes you dance in the kitchen?

Well, with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old, we listen to a lot of Disney Princess music and a lot of Raffi. I’m really good at “Baby Beluga” and “Down by the Bay.” If it’s just me, I’ve been listening to a lot of oldies, a lot of Elvis, a lot of the Mamas & the Papas, a lot of Talking Heads. I grew up and it was pretty much all classical music all the time. And now I’m branching out a little bit more.

We want food to be an experience. There’s a sentimentality to the way you cook. Where does that come from? When you were growing up, were your mom and grandmother telling you their stories? 

I have such core memories of cooking with my mom, or weaving through the grocery store aisles with my mom, wanting to get Oreos and her saying, “No, we can make Oreos from scratch!” She taught me how much better it tastes to make things from scratch. Cooking was never seen as a chore. I would watch her cooking while I was doing my homework. And that was her time, her special relaxation time. She loved it, and I inherited that feeling as well.

How do you come up with new ideas?

That’s my favorite thing to do. Just sit there and brainstorm. I love to start with parameters. For example, fall and winter are coming up, so being able to narrow it down based on what the seasons are and what the holidays are and what I have available from my garden or just ingredients from the store.

I think about menus all the time with Bernie’s, our restaurant. I am always dreaming of menus and incorporating those flavors of my ancestors and Nick’s ancestors. And I’m always learning—like, what crazy gelatin salad have I not made from this church cookbook, or what hotdish have I not fiddled with?

You have a collaboration with Macy’s and also with Hebel & Co Halva. If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be? 

I’m a really big figure skating fan and I would love to figure out a way to incorporate food into figure skating. My favorite figure skaters are Jason Brown and the ice dancers Jean-Luc Baker and Kaitlin Hawayek. I’m such a fan girl of figure skating, I would love to find a collaboration there.

What’s the best advice you have for home cooks during the holidays?

I am so excited for the holidays. I love to menu plan. I love to keep notes on my phone. Remember, you can delegate. You can choose your favorite things that you want to make and focus on those. I am a planner for big holidays. I will have schedules for one day out, two days out, two weeks out.

Learn what can be made in advance and lean into that. Learn that a braised brisket will actually taste better if made the day before and [if] it sits in the refrigerator overnight. Same thing with bread dough or challah dough; let it rise in the refrigerator and it makes it easier. Homemade stocks can be made and frozen for months ahead and taste so much better than store-bought stock. You don’t have to do it all in one day. Space things out and you will enjoy them more. And don’t skimp on the butter.

Oh, and read [The New York Times writer and editor] Sam Sifton’s book “Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well.” I read it every year.

If you could have anybody over to the farm to cook for, who would it be?

My extended family. They’re everywhere, all around the country. I have family in New York, Florida, California, and Chicago, of course.

My dream is to just have them all here for Thanksgiving.

Jerrod Sumner is Minnesota Monthly’s aesthetic editor. His work covers all things local in the maker community. He is sought after for his understanding and promotion of the modern, American-made maker movement, and is a contributor on FOX 9 Good Day, sharing stories and goods. Follow him on Instagram @mrjerrodscott.