Molly Yeh - Artist Study

Molly Yeh is a percussionist and a photographer, but more well known for her mad skills as a baker on her blog My Name is Yeh. She is a Snapchatting, Cheeto noshing chicken mama who we love having as a friend because it means asking her questions and taking photos is interspersed with a lot of laughter and, of course, cake.

Tell us who you are and what you do.

My name is Molly Yeh and I am a food blogger and I wrote a cookbook.

How did you become a blogger?

I’ve always loved scrapbooking and keeping a diary and I’ve always loved food. I have diaries that go back to when I had started to write so like seven years old. I had my “Hello Kitty” diaries just to write about school and boys and random stuff but I never stopped keeping a diary because I’m obsessive when it comes to documenting so I have diaries that go back without break to that time. They’re in a case at my mom’s house.

The blogging was just a fun way to incorporate photos into my diaries and to write them for other people. Until then I was writing to alien people in the future who would dig up my diaries.

So I started the blog in 2009 just as an online scrapbook and diary (grabs another Cheeto) and it just sort of documented my life in New York and fun things and fun little weekend trips and sometimes restaurants, but didn’t really take on the form of a food blog until I moved here in 2013. Well it was a restaurant blog for a little bit and then it was a schnitzel blog for like a month but yeah.

How did you learn how to cook?

That sort of came in by osmosis because my mom was always cooking and she was the type of person who made dinner every single night. She still does make dinner every single night from scratch. Except for Fridays when we’d have Friday Pizza Night. Like after skating practice, I’d want to get concession stand cheese fries but she’d be like “Noooo we’re going home to make dinner”.

How did you transition from a musician to a baker?

My dad’s a musician. He’s in the Chicago Symphony and I grew up around music, going to his concerts, and so I played piano and violin when I was little. When I started the middle school band, I knew I wanted to play percussion because I’d always been hitting things. I’d always been pulling out my mom’s pots and pans and spoons and whisks and playing little drum solos. In junior high, I got really into percussion because I joined this youth orchestra and all the kids there were so cool. Suddenly in high school all of my friends loved the fact that my dad was in the symphony and could get us into concerts.

So I went to New York and one thing that really fascinated me about the city was all of the food. Until then I had been a pretty picky eater but in order to really experience the city, I started to eat crazier foods. I started trying jellyfish and fried crickets, basically anything you would put in front of me.

And I started taking music gigs in other parts of the city just so that I could try the different restaurants in that area. I would go up and play these gigs up in Morningside Heights for no real reason other than an excuse to go to the new ramen place, which is not so new anymore.

I did a blog post every week where I tried a new restaurant and wrote about it. So then I started blogging about recipes and when I moved to my apartment I discovered how cheap and good it is to cook food yourself instead of buying it everywhere. I started cooking a little bit more but when I moved to Brooklyn and had a nice sunny kitchen, I started cooking even more. And then when I moved out here (to Grand Forks), I was like “ok I have nothing to do and no friends. I am going to do this and I’m not going to stop until I can do it as a full time thing!”.

So I did what I would do at Juilliard when I wanted to learn a new snare drum excerpt. I locked myself in a room and I practiced photography and I didn’t see anybody and I started learning little things like how to drive traffic to my site from Pinterest. Or anytime anyone would ask me for any sort of work, I would just say yes. To anything I would say yes so I started contributing to other sites and gaining a following that way. Eventually people started paying me to do things.

Was there a moment when you knew you’d be able to blog full time?

There was one moment. Ok, so I was actually working part time at the bakery. I would go in at 1am for 4-6 hours and bake. I was making a little bit of money, and you don’t really need a lot of money to live in North Dakota. Betty Crocker was the first company to offer to pay me to do recipe development. They offered to do two recipes a month. When it happened I was like “You’re paying me to do what I love?! I could quit my bakery job and do this full time!” That was the first time I was like “OMG I’m going to do this and I’m getting paid to do this and this is so much fun.”

Describe your space.

We are sitting in front of Cheetos. Nick built this table. He gave it to me. For my birthday two years ago, he said “I’m going to build you a table.” And for my birthday one year ago, he gave me the table. (laughs) It is the sturdiest thing in all the land. I could get up on it and do a disco and it would not break. I love it. It’s a great photo background. And it’s also great for hosting little dinner parties!

When we moved in there were hanging cabinets right there dividing the space into two and they were really really dark. There were cabinets all around the kitchen and they were dark and they were very heavy navy blue curtains hanging down in front of the window. And there was this massive almond colored refrigerator. Basically it was very dark.

We did a couple of posts here before we did anything with the kitchen and we could see that the light was really good. So we (well, Nick and his dad) ripped out all the cabinets, took the countertops off, we bought these butcher block countertops from IKEA in the cities, and put the farm sink in, and put the open shelving in… The one thing that I just loved from the original kitchen was this cute little stove even though it doesn’t fit some of my cookie sheets because it’s so small, I just LOVE the look, I love the vintage coils and dials. We’ve thought about replacing it, but I just think it looks so cute and it works well. Pinterest convinced me to put in the open shelving and the white sink… It is not a good idea because if you have a white sink you spend half your life stressing if it’s clean enough and the other half cleaning it. And the same goes for the open shelving. It collects dusts. But it’s cute and lets me display my books and spices and sprinkles.

The knife rack Nick built for me and he presented it to me the moment I submitted my book manuscript. He paid hundreds of dollars for magnets, learned they were the wrong magnets, bought new magnets, and now we have a beautiful knife rack. And the triangle slash dinner bell… Nick plays the trombone. I play percussion. A trombone company called Tine Trombones makes triangles out of their scrap metal. When you buy one, they send you all of them so you can test them out and then you keep the one you like. And my dad bought it for me for a graduation gift.

How do you develop recipes?

I keep a running list of things that I want to cook on your phone. I’m influenced my heritage. My mom is Jewish and my dad is Chinese. I’ve done some traveling to Israel and I think that cuisine is so good and healthy, too. I’m really into those flavors - mint, za’atar, sumac, tahini, halva, and as many fresh vegetables and herbs as I can use. Right now I’m just so happy we have so many herbs in the garden. Every day I go out there and get the herbs for my breakfast salad. And then I have it over yogurt, which is another ingredient that I can’t get over.

I experiment and I read as much as I can. Like kibbeh, which is a Lebanese meatball. I’ll read as many recipes as I can so I can really get to know it and then I’ll extract my favorite parts about all the recipes I’ve read. Right now I’m really into eating less meat so I made a meatless kibbeh recently out of walnuts and bulgur. And then I added mint and feta and preserved lemon. So good.

Describe what we made today.

Well these are cookies I’m considering calling the “New Monster Cookies” with tahini, coconut oil, flaked coconut, toasted walnuts, chocolate, and smoked salt. We made a sheet cake, which is a vanilla tahini sheet cake with chamomile cream cheese frosting. And we made rosewater marshmallows which are going in my book.

What makes you different than other bloggers?

I’m just praying that no other Chinese-Jewish-Midwestern transplant comes along.

Nick: There’s a combination of luck and skill where Molly moving to the farm was a spark that lit a fire that was already ready to go. There may be people that take better photos or write better or bake better pies, but Molly is herself.

Molly: I like being a blogger. I just don’t want to say something if I know it’s going to be boring. I want to see what from my experience I can add to this. Like a sheet cake. People have been making sheet cakes and bringing them to church potlucks for generations, but let’s infuse the frosting with camomile from my garden, decorate it with my favorite herb (which is rosemary), and add tahini in the cake because who in Grand Forks is going to be putting tahini in a cake? You don’t see Scandinavians using tahini a lot.

How do you think you’ve changed since you started?

I’ve definitely gotten more interested in going deeper into my Jewish heritage and really challenging myself to learn about those foods. And then also learning about Scandinavian culture, Midwestern culture, and Nick’s family. I didn’t know what a hotdish was three years ago, or a cookie salad or Snickers salad. But those are some of my biggest inspirations! In cookie salad you have cookies and cream and fruit. It’s the same thing as an Eton mess - you have meringue and cream and fruit. Or in a Jello salad you have gelatin, cream, and fruit. But then in Israel, you have malabi - firmed milk, rosewater, and fruit. It’s all the same - slightly different ingredients, but people in Israel and in the Midwest, people found it pleasing to the palate to film up liquid and add fruit to it.

What’s the hardest thing about what you do?

I think just being your own boss, and when you’re your own boss you have to pick which 36 hours you’re going to work. You can always be doing something. I’m always in my office from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep. So it’s easy to get burnt out. The business aspect and the aspect of growing the business and hiring people and being a good manager is really hard for me. The reason that I lasted as a classical percussionist stuck in a room by myself all the time is the reason why I’m lasting as an individual blogger living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. It’s because I like being myself, but you can only grow so much when it’s just you. It’s hard navigating that sometimes.

What’s the best part?

Literally like everything. (laughs) Being able to work my own hours, in my pajamas, and make food, and photograph it, and write about it, and make friends like all over the world because wherever I go I have blogger friends that I can hang out with… and whenever Nick comes in from the field, we can hang out.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In a bigger kitchen. (laughs) I think I’d like to write another book and I’d like to produce video content.

What’s the process of writing a cookbook been like?

It was like one entire year of freaking out and then one really great meal when I turned my book in. I ate a schnitzel at Skye’s.

It was a little bit of a clusterf*ck in that it was such a learning process with a publisher and an editor and designers and one big deadline versus lots of itty bitty deadlines, which is what I deal with on a regular basis with the blog. But with this, it was like, “In one year, turn in 120-150 recipes, 80,000 words” and that was really difficult. The book isn’t just stand alone recipes. They’re woven into each other. And the recipes within the chapters have to go in a certain order so a lot of things came together within the last month or two. For the first eight months, it was recipe testing, photographing, having bonfires and whatnot. And then the last two months were me sitting right there, listening to Sia as loud as she would possibly go, and extracting all of the words that were buried deep inside my person about growing up in the suburbs, and summer camps, and living in New York, and going to Juilliard, and then moving here. It was me staying up really really late, not answering emails, listening to Sia, and writing. I didn’t even shower and I would eat bread and butter and drinking coffee. Chameleon cold brew sent me a box of cold brew and I have a photo of this table covered in cold brew.

What do you hope people take away from your blog and your cookbook?

I do want to be a friend to them. I want to be a high point in their weekend or in their day. I think that’s why I love cake so much because when you have cake, it’s definitely not the low point in your day. It’s definitely a high point. I just like being a part of that. I love when people post on Instagram that they made a cake recipe of mine and tag me. I want to supply exact ingredients and instructions so they get a certain result, but I want them to have fun with it, add flavors, and try new things.

What do you always have in your fridge?

Tahini, yogurt, butter, English cucumbers, some sort of dairy product that I’m going to try and finagle into some baked good. I try to always have green vegetables, maybe avocados… I think that’s it. Oh and hot sauce!

(We counted and Molly has over 10 different brands of tahini in her kitchen…)

What’s the secret to being a good cook?

Salt. Just being able to salt well.

What’s the best food that nobody eats?

Tahini and good hummus. Breakfast salads! I cannot express how awesome it is to have a fresh salad with full fat yogurt first thing in the morning.

What’s your least favorite food?

Bananas. Mushrooms. It used to be olives but now I’m getting used to them. And there’s still some seafood I won’t eat.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Cheetos and potato chips.

What’s your comfort food?

Macaroni and cheese! And salami and butter sandwiches. Hot dogs are good too.

How are you not 600 pounds?

Nick. It's all Nick. He's so healthy. From the beginning, he taught me to fill my plate with three quarters vegetables and one quarter other stuff.
But if it weren't for me, Nick's diet would be eggs, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, beans, nuts... and avocados.
So imagine the 85 lb. human Nick would be without me, and the 600 lb. human I would be without him...

What’s on your music playlist?

Most of the time my default is Sia even though I’m still a little bit scarred from that whole book writing thing, as well as Punch Brothers and The National. Every fall I listen to Sufjan Stevens.

What or who inspires you?

Both my parents. They’ve always encouraged me to do what I love and they are both so curious. My mom is always reading about food, and trying new spices and new techniques in the kitchen. And my dad is so into music. He’s never going to retire from his job. Seeing their passion. And Nick. When Nick and I started dating, he was writing music and singing and was working like 16 hour days. I saw how passionate he was about this one single thing and at the time I was living in New York I was doing a little bit of food, and a little bit of music, and writing at Juilliard’s paper, and I was just doing all these different things. I really wanted to care about something as much as he cared about music. So when I moved out here and started doing that with the blog, I really felt I was in line with that.

Why do you feel drawn to create?

I don’t know why. It’s just always been that way. When I have nothing to do on a weekend, I’ll probably sit around and try to watch TV for a little awhile and then be like “Oh! Cookies!” and then run into the kitchen and make cookies.

What advice do you have for other creatives or people who want to have a creative career?

Work really hard. Be yourself to the extreme because people want that. You might think it’s boring that you wake up every day and have the same breakfast but I think it’s fascinating. For me, I want to see what you see everyday. I want to see weird things that you love.

And also always talk to people. With phones and Internet, some people only text or interact over Facebook, but there’s so much more connection to be made when you do it in person, which is why I think it’s really important to travel and meet face to face with people.