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Amy Thielen’s Newest Cookbook, ‘Company,’ Inspires Kitchen Confidence

Chef aims to help others love cooking as much as she does

spinner image amy thielen in front of orange background with cutouts of pears and oranges
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Lacey Criswell)

If the prospect of hosting friends and family for a meal is anxiety-inducing, Amy Thielen’s new book, Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others, could be the antidote. The former TV cooking show host and cookbook author, 48, shares 125 recipes, composed in 20 fully conceived menus designed to allow home chefs to mix-and-match dishes. She writes in an easy, conversational style, and includes tips to amp up your kitchen competency so that you feel confident switching up recipes according to the freshest produce available or making adjustments as your food cooks. Ultimately, the down-to-earth chef hopes to inspire readers to love cooking as much as she does.

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What does “radically casual” cooking mean to you?

When I think about an entertaining book, there’s generally the assumption that it's going to be performative, or that you’re cooking for people in order to show off your own culinary skills. With this book, I wanted to reimagine that relationship between the host and the guest, and to kind of center the cook’s experience. I like to throw a lot of parties because I like the cooking itself, so the book really is about the cook’s pleasure and the pleasure that we take in preparing things for other people.

How would you define your approach to cooking?

I like to think of it as a time where we can be creative. Some of the recipes and menus are “projects” that are really fun — almost like a craft project. For example, there’s a French apple strudel cake in the book called Pastis du Quercy. It involves stretching strudel dough, which is a recipe I’ve worked on for years to get it right. That’s not something you make right before people are arriving. Those “projects” are mixed in with things that are incredibly easy. There are lots of simple vegetable sides that I use to pad out a menu, because when you’re doing a menu for people, you have to think about the menu and the plate as a whole. I think what’s really different about this book is that it is a menu cookbook of all these things that I’ve made for so many years.

Since the book is designed in menus, can someone mix and match to suit their tastes or cooking style?

Some of the menus are kind of long, and you don’t have to make every single thing. There’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure vibe to the book where things are interchangeable. Obviously, I don’t expect that people are necessarily going to make a menu from start to finish. But if that’s the part that is challenging for a home cook — to come up with the menu — the guidance is there. It could be inspirational. You could pick the beef from one menu and the salad from another.

Your career is a study in opposites: You’ve worked for some of the world’s best chefs, but your books help make cooking more approachable. How have those fine dining experiences shaped your day-to-day cooking?

It’s been a while since I was in those kitchens, but when I was in, I was in very deep. I worked for a lot of really great chefs. We had very high standards, and I think that is really my takeaway: My standards are very high for the details and the products and how you store the products. Let’s say it’s tomatoes. When I pick one up, put it on the counter, turn it over, watch it ripen. Those are the details that make OK or mediocre food into really something memorable and extraordinary. Also, working in kitchens you learn how to use your knives and keep your space really clean, which I also learned from my mother. The other thing I took away from fine dining in my training is the ability to season progressively [as needed].

What do you want people to feel when they cook from Company?

We were talking about pleasure in cooking, but I also want people to feel confident. I want them to feel like it’s a fun thing to do and that it’s a joy to feed other people. I want them to feel relaxed in the knowledge that, as I write in the introduction, everything tastes better at somebody else’s house. [You can] go easy on yourself and have a good time.

Do you have any advice for people who are trying to eat more seasonally or want to support local farmers?

Every place is different, but at this point many urban centers have some sort of a farmers market. I know it’s sometimes more difficult when you don’t live out in the country, but I see people out here [in my area] who don’t grow stuff themselves. I have way too large of a garden because I really enjoy it, but I also like to go to the farmers market in town. One thing that’s always a good deal is to load up on stuff when it’s in season and there's a surplus. When I lived in Brooklyn, at the end of the season they’d be selling the potatoes very cheaply. And I would just buy a bunch of them and then store them in my fridge, where they lasted for months.

It sounds like learning how to properly store ingredients is an important skill to have in the kitchen.

spinner image book cover that says company the radically casual art of cooking for others; cutouts of food, drinkwear and bowls on cover
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Cook With Amy

Thielen shared two recipes from Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others for AARP members to try:

Fun House Baked Potatoes

These open-faced buttery baked potatoes paired with onions and bay leaves are crisped to perfection and great for serving a big group.

Mei’s Ginger-Glazed Baby Back Ribs

Caramelized pork ribs are poached in a light soy brine and can be scaled up to feed an actual throng —​ graduation parties, reunions, what-​have-​you.

Yeah, and it saves you money. There’s a lot of hidden thrift in this book of big, luxurious dinner parties.

Your first book, The New Midwestern Table, was so popular. Will fans find Midwestern fare in this book?

There’s a lot. … Midwestern cooking kind of infuses what I do here, so the spirit of everything is very Midwestern. I would say yes, the people who liked that first book are going to really like this book. I really think about recipes when I develop them, and I tried to bring some practice to it, some thoughtfulness, some sort of history. And a lot of my fans are those kinds of nerds, too.

The book has a lot of teachable moments, aside from the nuts and bolts of each recipe. Why did you choose that approach?

I wrote the methods in a conversational voice. They are specific, but they’re also evocative and full of visual and sensory cues, because I feel like that is a better way to communicate doneness or how long you cook something, by giving [notes about what it should] look like. Sometimes the numbers and timers and probes — those things cause us to question our intuition and our good sense. Writing this way is how I would communicate to my son or anybody else I was trying to teach to cook.

What are three ingredient staples that you always have on hand?

Lemons, preferably Meyer lemons. They’re just so much sweeter [than other lemons]. Another thing I use a lot is dried red chilies that I buy at the Asian market. They’re semi-hot, and I add those to a lot of different sauces and soups and things. I find that one or two of those gives it kind of this nice haunting pepper flavor that ground black pepper can’t match. I also use a lot of bay leaves, either fresh or dried. And when I do the dried ones, I buy them from a good place like Penzeys Spices.

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