When Amy Thielen hosted a cooking class in the kitchen of her hand-built, hotel room–sized home in the thick Minnesota Northwoods, she didn’t think to mention its lack of electricity and running water to her students. They figured it out for themselves, after testing the shocks on their fancy cars on an undulant half-mile of dirt driveway, only to find Thielen, with oil lamps and a ‘40s vintage propane stove, ready to demo a fabulous French menu plan.
“I’m making duck confit and tarte tatin, throwing dirty dishes behind curtains under the counter because I couldn’t wash them as I went. I didn’t think a thing of it,” she says, laughing. “Some of those women still talk to me about it. They loved it.”
More than a decade later, Thielen filmed the first episodes of Heartland Table, the second season of which premiered on the Food Network earlier this year, in that very kitchen.
Of course, a lot happened in between. Not long after those cooking classes, the year’s first freeze hit, marking the end of Thielen’s third pioneer-style growing season Up North with her then-boyfriend, fellow Park Rapids native Aaron Spangler, an artist who built the place himself with hand tools, lumber from the Two Inlets Mill down the road, and various materials scavenged from neighbors’ barns. That winter, the two traded their rustic, wooded home and its plentiful gardens for a studio apartment in Brooklyn half its size.
Thielen went to culinary school, and then worked 80-hour weeks cooking at some of the top fine-dining restaurants in Manhattan. Spangler worked on his art. From afar, they hired a neighbor to build a studio and an addition, including plumbing and electricity. On return trips to Minnesota, they got married and had a baby they named Hank.
They moved back in 2008 to snuggle into Northwoods life with their infant son, near family and lifelong friends, having established themselves well enough to bring their jobs with them. Spangler shows his large-scale sculptures in New York and internationally. Thielen wrote The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes (Clarkson Potter, 2013), for which she earned her second James Beard Award. (Her first was for a series of Minnesota-centric food articles that ran in the Star Tribune.) The TV show premiered the same month the book came out. She’s under contract for a second book, a food narrative, due out next year.
The family’s single-level home is now triple the size it once was, though at around 1,500 square feet, it’s still far from sprawling. The addition netted them a living room and two modest bedrooms, plus two serious luxuries after years of backwoods and New York City living: a large bathroom with claw-foot tub and a little laundry room.
The connected, original structure is essentially one big, open space. At one end is the dining room, with rugged 14-foot-tall log walls lined in paintings and packed bookshelves, and capped by a tin ceiling (actually the backside of some trailer-home siding). The sliver of a loft that once served as the bedroom, now crammed with cookbooks, creates a beamed ceiling for the kitchen underneath it.
The kitchen has come a long way from the basic little space that held that French cooking class years ago. Beyond electricity and indoor plumbing, it gained a pantry, a five-burner gas Fratelli Onofri stove that’s a dream for canning, and a coat of white paint covering the black circles on the ceiling (evidence of years of oil-lamp lighting). Practicality, however, far outweighs any fanciness. Open upper shelving overflows with mismatched mugs, ingredient-filled Mason jars and thrift-store rosemaled canisters, and that same curtained lower shelving works great for stashing items while filming the show. There’s a dishwasher, yes, but one cozy enough with the butcher-block island that it comes within inches of it when open. Thielen loves it that way.
“It’s not huge, but it’s very convenient. You don’t have to move to get to things,” she says. “To be honest, I don’t need much. I’m more concerned about the feeling of having the oven close to the island than if a drawer closes like a Rolls-Royce.”
The compact workhorse of a space acts as a cooking show set, a processing place for a massive garden’s bounty, and a landing spot for guests—especially during harvest time, which tends to turn into one serial dinner party. Sara Woster, her husband, and their two children, are longtime friends, summer neighbors, and, therefore, frequent guests. “When the invitations come several nights in a row, finally one of the emails will be titled, ‘The Tyranny of Dinner.’
She’ll say, ‘I’m so sorry, but do you want to come over again? I’m cooking up all of my Swiss chard,’” Woster says. “We’re so lucky. Every invite is like a gift.”
Thielen likes to get the “heavy lifting” done beforehand—making and setting out the appetizer, marinating the meat, prepping whatever veggie’s ready to be picked that day—but prefers to save the cooking for after guests have arrived. The open yet intimate space makes the setup effortlessly social. Friends sit at the island as she works, sipping wine, trying the latest dip she’s concocted, and visiting.
When the food is ready, they call the kids off the hammock outside or away from Minecraft to eat in the pine-filtered air off sundry well-loved plates, with an oil lamp at hand for when the sun disappears down into the thick trees. There might be dessert, depending on how heavy the meal is or how many sweet-toothed kids are present. Odds are good that the night will end in Adirondacks around the fire pit.
“I generally keep entertaining easy and approachable,” Thielen says. “I want it to feel rustic, immediate, and intimate. Kind of like my place.”
Rustic & Relaxing
To set a casual-yet-special mood for meals with friends, borrow Amy Thielen’s straightforward, easygoing dinner-party tips.
Mind the Basics
A full tablecloth, good lighting, and music are Thielen’s top three atmospheric musts. (Enter husband Aaron, who lights the oil lamps and keeps the music rolling all night long.)
Set the Tone
Even though, or perhaps because Thielen enjoys cooking while guests mingle about the kitchen, she does like to have the table set to create a relaxed, dinner party–ready mood right upon arrival.
Incorporate the Grill
“We really love to cook something outside over the wood fire, on our grill, because the aroma of the wood smoke and the sight of the flames really gets everyone’s hunger up,” she says. “There’s nothing more appetizing, really.”
By Berit Thorkelson
Photos by TJ Turner
Styling by Alison Hoekstra