Bernie’s, in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, opened last September as an ode to locally-influenced Scandinavian cuisine. The restaurant has garnered a loyal local following, and also gets a fair amount of out-of-town visitors from across the country. They are on a pilgrimage of sorts, fans of owner Molly Yeh’s (pronounced yay) Food Network show “Girl Meets Farm,” who want to experience her food on her home turf.
“We are the only celebrity restaurant anywhere near here,” said head baker Matt Talley. “Molly lived here before she was famous, and lots of people know her husband’s family, the Hagens. Everybody here feels like they are part of something cool.”
The menu, billed as cozy farm food, is founded on regional staples, prepared from scratch, with the best ingredients around. In the Midwest, hotdish is the go-to casserole for a potluck or a sick friend, made of ground beef and vegetables in a cream base, and topped with tater tots. Knoephla is a dumpling soup with carrots and dill, for which each family recipe adds hotly-contested additional ingredients (bacon, yes or no?). Cookie salad, for the uninitiated, is a creamy pudding confection studded with cookies and fruit.
Bernie’s offerings showcase ingredients that are locally abundant. Wheat, sugar beets, and potatoes are all major crops grown nearby in the productive Red River Valley. Local beef and midwestern walleye fish are staples on the menu, and seasonal produce from farmers market vendors rounds out their plates. Often, locally-familiar ingredients are prepared in new ways, like the beets that flavor and color a tahini sauce, and the Minnesota wild rice featured in a meatless grain burger.
Head baker Talley sold breads and baked goods at the local farmers market for two years and every week, customers told him the community needed a full-service bakery. He established the one at Bernie’s where he now makes ten types of bread and more than twenty kinds of baked goods daily. These, too, have a midwestern bent, like swapping cardamom for cinnamon in the breakfast pastry rolls. Rugbrod, a dark seeded Danish rye bread, is a staple and features prominently in the breakfast smorgasbord, served with an egg, ham, cheese, and small pickles called cornichons.
The almost 100-year-old building that houses Bernie’s was originally home to a cherished dining spot called Whitey’s Wonderbar. Molly Yeh is glad to carry on the culinary tradition of the space. The interior of the art deco structure is light and bright yet cozy, with two seating areas, a casual bakery-adjacent café and more formal dining room.
“Joyful would be how I would describe it,” said Talley about the feeling of the space. “Molly loves sprinkles, and that comes through in fun pastel colors in the table arrangements and decor. Servers wear baby blue aprons, which we now call Bernie’s blue. It’s child-like joy distilled into a restaurant.”
The Road to “Rural Fame”
Bernie’s is just the latest entry in Molly Yeh’s lengthy food resume. She began as a food blogger and freelance writer in New York City, often creating dishes inspired by her Jewish and Chinese heritage. But Yeh’s life – and career – took a major turn when she moved to North Dakota in 2013, where her husband, Nick Hagen, is a fifth-generation sugar beet farmer.
Living on a farm was a big change for the former urban and suburban dweller, and it has permanently impacted her cooking. “It’s very inspiring to see exactly where certain ingredients come from,” she wrote in an email. “The farmers I’m surrounded by work so hard and that has only inspired me to work harder. There is truly so much that goes into growing crops that it is impossible to know when you just see a bag of flour or sugar at the store.”
Molly Yeh embraced her new midwestern home, its Scandinavian influences, and its ingredients. She also embraced its work ethic and threw herself into cooking. Inspired by the abundance of farm-grown ingredients, she created new recipes. She combed through church cookbooks to learn regional specialties. She learned how to make lefse, Norwegian potato flatbread, from her new neighbors. And she shared it all on her blog, “my name is yeh!” with pictures taken in her own farmhouse. She built a substantial internet following – all from her farm in North Dakota.
It caught the attention of the broader food world, and Food Network took note. In 2018, Molly Yeh began hosting “Girl Meets Farm” from her modest home kitchen. She is a rural ambassador of sorts, opening a window into farm life for those who are disconnected from food production as she shares her everyday life – mud and all – with readers and viewers across the country.
Yeh has gleaned some wisdom about having a creative career outside of major population centers. “I suppose I sometimes feel out of touch with what’s trending in cities, but the internet and social media help me try to stay in the loop!” she wrote. “These days you truly do not have to be in a city to forge a career in food writing. Write what you are passionate about and know that your story is unique and interesting.”