Book Review- Give a Girl a Knife

Give a Girl a Knife
Amy Thielen
Clarkson Potter, 2017

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.

Lucky Dip – Monday, March 5th, 2012

In Toronto:

The big food news this past weekend was that chefs Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth will be taking over the Niagara Street Cafe (169 Niagara Street) as of April 1st, renaming it Edulis. Caballo was the chef at Niagara Street until a few years ago when he and partner Nemeth (she was the chef de cuisine at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar) left Toronto to travel. After working at restaurants around the world, including in Tuscany and California, they’re returning to the city to run their own place.

Ici Bistro (538 Manning Avenue)  is closed until March 21st for staff vacations.

Dark Horse Espresso Bar has taken over the old Smokeless Joe’s location at 125 John Street and opens today.

Greg Clow got the scoop about Mill Street Brewpub opening a location in Pearson Airport. Basically, there will be no beer brewed onsite, but there will be a 130-seat pub with 10 Mill Street brands on tap. Get the full story at Canadian Beer News.

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Smörgåsbord – Tutti Matti, Debu, The Four Seasons

Look, more Smörgåsbord! A few weeks back, we headed up to Mount Pleasant to do some shopping. Our mission was Ontario buckwheat flour from Culinarium, but we stopped at Debu’s for their awesome 3-course prix fixe lunch. This is a chickpea fritter with a mango salad that was offered as an appetizer.

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Shut Yo’ Mouth – Stuff I Wrote This Week, Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Just Opened – Hush

Boulud comes to Toronto

Meat and beer (and Ron Swanson) at Little Kitchen

Against the Grain expands its beer menu

Nota Bene to run a Mo Bros wine auction

Continue reading “Shut Yo’ Mouth – Stuff I Wrote This Week, Saturday, November 5th, 2011”

Shut Yo’ Mouth – Stuff I Wrote – Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Cafe Cinquecento splits

LCBO hots a gala dinner and fine wine auction

Rusholme Park Supper Club announces October events

What’s on the Table returns for the 7th year to benefit The Stop

Casey’s launches Fall menu

Continue reading “Shut Yo’ Mouth – Stuff I Wrote – Saturday, October 22nd, 2011”

Lucky Dip – Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Michael Schmidt is now on day 19 of his hunger strike over the lack of legalization for raw milk, and says he will continue until Premier Dalton McGuinty grants him a meeting. [Toronto Star]

When it comes to shoplifted items, cheese is the most popular food for people to steal. I’m guessing this is because it’s usually small enough to slip into a pocket. Shame about the crackers being so bulky. [Sky News]

The blood is the life… just in time for the season of ghouls and vampires, Toronto chefs are cooking with blood. And while, IMO, items like blood sausage tastes like rank death, some of the stuff (like a tart where blood is combined with chocolate) are actually really good. [Globe and Mail]

For all of those 99% complaining that they can’t get a job, any job at all, maybe they can explain why, all over the US, in the face of a crackdown on illegal immigrant workers, farmers are having to either turn to prison labour or destroy their crops because they can’t find unemployed people willing to do field work. [Wall Street Journal]

Confirmed – The Four Seasons‘ “mystery chef” is indeed Daniel Boulud. [Toronto Star]

Continue reading “Lucky Dip – Wednesday, October 19th, 2011”