Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: "Give a Girl a Knife" by Amy Thielen

About 14-15 years ago (how can that be?) I went to culinary school, and worked as a personal chef for about 18 months until the economy started tanking. At that time, I always had this dream of opening a little restaurant, nothing super fancy. Of course, once I worked at a restaurant for a brief period, that dream died quickly—I thrive on pressure and chaos, but the frenetic pace of cooking in a restaurant, not to mention the pressure of having to always get everything right, would have driven me insane.

That journey in self-discovery is reinforced whenever I read a chef's memoir. Just hearing about the frenetic nature of readying plates in a high-end restaurant is enough to send me reaching for a Xanax. (Check out Michael Gibney's excellent Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line for a great example of this.)

"Cooking wasn't just a job; it was a life—what looked to all outsiders, including my own boyfriend, like a pretty terrible life. It was, as Aaron feared, a real affliction. And possibly, a dysfunctional relationship."

While Amy Thielen's terrific new book, Give a Girl a Knife, dips into this territory, as it chronicled her tenure cooking for some of the finest chefs—David Bouley, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Daniel Boulud, and Shea Gallante—in some of New York's most famous restaurants, it didn't dwell on this exclusively. The more time Thielen spent working on fabled, complex dishes, with ingredients and techniques not often seen in everyday kitchens, the more she realized that behind every fancy plate are the backbones of her Midwestern culinary heritage—potatoes, onion, bacon, and butter—lots of butter.

Thielen grew up in Northern Minnesota, in a town known as the home of the nation's largest French fry factory. Her mother, like generations of women before her, reveled in cooking homey, delicious, yet seemingly uncomplicated dishes reflective of Midwestern culture and the German, Austrian, and French heritage of their ancestors. Dishes like pork roast, spaetzle, fermented sour pickles, poppy seed coffee cake, and the infamous hotdishes, laden with bacon and (quite often) cheese, were part of almost every meal for Thielen and her family, yet when she decided to go to culinary school and pursue a career as a chef in New York City, she couldn't get far enough away from those elements, until she realized how truly interrelated everything was.

Give a Girl a Knife juxtaposes Thielen's culinary career with a chronicle of her growing up surrounded by food and the magnificent women who brought the food to delectable life. It also dealt with her struggles as she and her boyfriend (and eventual husband) Aaron tried to bring their dream of living in an off-the-grid, hand-built cabin deep in the Minnesota woods to life. It is during their time in the cabin that awakens Amy's love of food, of coaxing beauty, as well as both subtlety and vibrance, from homegrown fruits and vegetables, as well as meats.

But the time she spends in New York City, as much as she feels it embraces her talents, leaves her longing for the solitude of their cabin, and inspires her journey to better understand her culinary heritage from the beginning. It's a journey that shapes her and her career, as well as her path for her future.

"I'd spent years trying to erase those homely flavors from my past, but when I gave my nostalgia an inch, it ran down the road a mile. Like an archaeologist picking in the hard-packed clay, I felt a need to return home to excavate the old flavors and all the feelings I'd ever tied to them."

At one point when she is trying to decide what to do with her life, Thielen considers being a food writer. It's certainly another career path which would bring her success, because she is a tremendously talented writer, able to paint sensory pictures in your mind's eye with her words. Of course, my snap reaction to this book, with its vivid, beautiful descriptions of complex gourmet dishes, comfort foods, fresh fruits and vegetables?

Beyond wanting to gnaw the seat of the airline passenger in front of me (serves him right for trying to recline his seat back into my lap anyway), I loved the emotions and the ideas that this book conveyed. You can certainly see why Thielen has succeeded in her career, and it was enjoyable to read about her artist husband and how his dream of the cabin in the woods really inspired her life's work. They're certainly a remarkable pair!

My one criticism of the book is the jumbled timeline—one second Thielen is working in New York, then she and Aaron are moving to Minnesota, then she's a teenager, then she's back in New York—at times it just got very confusing.

But in the end, that's a small price to pay because the book is so compelling, so enjoyable, and so hunger-inducing. If you're fascinated by chef stories, if you're a foodie, or if you just to like to eat, pick up Give a Girl a Knife. And have some food nearby!!

No comments:

Post a Comment