There’s a point in any professional cook’s life where you have to decide whether to keep cooking professionally — to really push for your own restaurant, your own empire, as it were —or whether to move on to another career, hopefully food-related. The human body can’t stand the physical abuse of the professional kitchen past (usually) the mid-30s and by that time, you’ve got to have some other line of work figured out. Amy Thielen very smartly used her English degree, the one she earned before deciding to become a chef in New York City, to take her cooking career into the realm of food writing, and readers should be thankful that she did.
Thielen is a cookbook author and TV host, and is a regular contributor to Saveur and other publications, but it is her food memoir, Give a Girl a Knife that resonated with me.
Growing up in suburban Minnesota, Thielen began cooking seriously when she paired up with artist Aaron Spangler and moved into his off-the-grid cabin in the woods. Growing and cooking most of their own food, Thielen learned about seasonal, local cooking. But this wasn’t enough for her, so when Spangler needed to move to New York to further his career, Thielen went with him, took a quickie chef’s course, and started working in some of the best restaurants of the late 90s, doing time with David Boulay and Daniel Boulud.
Travelling back and forth to their farm every summer, Thielen had the opportunity to explore not only the down to earth cooking she did at home as it compared to the high-end fine dining cuisine she prepared in various restaurants, but the influences of her mother and grandmother as they played into the mid-Western, middle class cuisine of the late 20th century.
Told in a slightly awkward three parts — her time cooking in the 90s in New York, then childhood, meeting Spangler and becoming a couple, and then present day and the decision to leave professional cooking behind to live on her farm full time — Thielen shares the life of a professional cook, interweaving it with her experiences cooking in a rural setting (they initially had no electricity or running water), and flavouring it with family food traditions.
More than the story itself, which is interesting and inspiring, is the way that Thielen writes. She is observant, and able to put those observations into words in the most evocative way, at one point discussing pickles she recounts opening a jar where,
Tons of bubbles hopped from the surface like baby frogs in wet grass.
In writing about her mother’s Minnesotan cooking she says,
My mom’s dish of room-temperature butter was more than a mere cooking fat, it was an ointment, filling, spackle, emotional salvo, as essential to combating the deep Minnesota winter as lotion.
A good and interesting story is only as good as the way it is told and Thielen has the knack of a great storyteller. At one point in the book she mentions writing fiction but dismisses the idea because she doesn’t consider herself creative in that way, but I think she is wrong. I think Thielen’s narrative voice would be perfect for fiction; she writes evocative descriptions that allow the reader to feel as if they’re right beside her, whether that is refusing to eat the rabbit that Aaron kills in their garden, or working a station in the hectic kitchen of a high-end restaurant, she makes the event come to life.
Give a Girl a Knife is a first hand look into two (maybe three) very different styles of cooking and eating and should be an inspiration for both aspiring chefs and aspiring writers.