Kristine M. Kierzek
Janice Thomas got her first taste for French food as a young child in Oregon. Those early meals created great memories, but also the foundation for her love of food, cooking and travel.
For years, she traveled back and forth from Arizona to Door County, where her husband’s family had a home. She trained as a nurse but often talked about having a cooking school of her own someday. When her husband found a spot in Ellison Bay, they launched Savory Spoon Cooking School.
Thomas has now spent nearly two decades teaching people to cook and leading culinary tours in Mexico, Spain, Italy, China and France. She believes cooking is something everyone can do, and she’s interested in making it fun and accessible.
After shutting down classes during the pandemic, she’s seen a resurgence in interest. Thomas leads classes weekly along with bringing in guest chefs for classes and special events throughout the summer season. She also offers a selection of culinary tools, imported tinned fish and other picnic essentials in her retail area. For a complete schedule of events, go to savoryspoon.com.
Question: How did you get started cooking?
Answer: My mother was a good cook, not a gourmet cook. Our home kitchen was always a welcoming place. But really in first grade is where my interest really took hold. I lived in a little town in southern Oregon that was the size of Ellison Bay. There was a class of eight people … and two were people were this family (from France) that served food that was just so memorable. I would never have been exposed to that. That was really a foundation: my mother creating this welcoming place and eating these gourmet foods with this family…
I’ve been back to their hometown in France. I lived there. … The week before school started here for my 19th season this year, I met with that woman in Portland. We did a road trip down the Oregon coast.
Q: So how did you decide on cooking as a profession?
A: Actually, my first profession was an emergency room nurse right out of college. I never left behind the fact that I loved food. At some point, my husband and I decided to get involved in some restaurants. We kind of stayed involved with food a little bit, but it was a franchise, so very different than what we do now.
Q: How did you come to open a cooking school in Door County?
A: My husband grew up in Madison. I grew up in Oregon. We met and married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Raising our children in Tucson was very hot. His parents had a place in Door County. I said I’m going there every summer. … In the end, I’d say let’s have a business there. He said, well, you pay rent for 12 months and you make money for three months.
We retired and one day I was on vacation with my sister and he said “I found the cooking school.” I said “what?” We bought a 45-acre farm. … We put it in the farm home, a 160-year-old log house. We had the cooking school there for three years.
We always said if the cooking school goes, we’ll be delighted, if it doesn’t, we’ll have the best kitchen in Door County. It went so well we knew we had to get it out of our house. Around that time the old schoolhouse in Ellison Bay came up for sale. We grabbed it and have been here since. It was built in 1879.
Q: Where was your first destination culinary tour?
A: Oaxaca, Mexico. That was 19 years ago, and half the people that came with me were from Tucson, Arizona, and the other half were from the Peninsula School of Art in Door County. There were two women I knew in Tucson doing Day of the Dead tours. I teamed with them because they knew the area but had never done the culinary part.
I also belong to IACP and there is a conference every year in some large city. You meet food writers, photographers. There wasn’t even a culinary tourism segment in the organization in those days. We were creating our own. Once I connect with a person or place, I do my homework, check out hotels, the restaurants, everything. Sometimes it takes two years to do that homework before I even start opening it on my website. I don’t use a tour bus company. I am the guide.
Q: What has cooking with others taught you?
A: A lot of times, someone will say to me, how can you stand this with all the people running all around? In my mind, each person is doing the best they can. They’re on one recipe, and I’m the glue for all of it. I wouldn’t be doing that if this drove me crazy.
To me, it makes it so clear there is no right or perfect way. In baking, you have to be accurate, but that’s why we measure everything out. Understanding that everyone is coming to it with a different perspective helps. I think it is good for other people to cook with complete strangers.
Q: How do you find your guest chefs to teach each season?
A: Does someone do something better than me? Is it their specialty? So Sweetie Pie’s, their specialty is pies. … Then there is a girl in Sister Bay who has the most wonderful croissants, and she does croissant class. … In past summers it has been every week we had an outside person. Now, staffing is so tight it is a little different.
Q: What has been the biggest influence on your approach in the kitchen?
A: I would say patience and compassion. My husband is a great cheerleader. At a certain older age when I said I’m going to Paris and Cordon Bleu this summer, he was like “Go for it!” There was never a roadblock that way.
Q: What is the No. 1 lesson you want people to learn in each class?
A: The confidence to make one of the things again. We typically do five recipes in three hours.
Q: What’s your favorite recipe to teach?
A: I love to teach two tarts, a blueberry one and one with bittersweet chocolate. The look on people’s faces when they realize how easy it is to make, yet it looks like it comes from a French bakery. That I teach for the look on their face. What I really love to teach is sauces and salsas, because it teaches people you can have one piece of fish and four different ways to make it taste completely different.
Q: What’s something you always bring back from travels?
A: Salt. It is a good thing to pick up when traveling, and if you’re traveling, you want something not heavy. If you’re in Spain, bring back mountains of saffron. It is light.
Q: Do you have a favorite salt?
A: I love this one that is from Hawaii, a black salt. Also when I take people to Sicily, we go to the salt flats in Trapani. It is such a great experience. They still have some of the windmills in the salt yard and the men are in big rubber boots raking salt.
Q: What’s the one meal you cook for yourself?
A: I can’t get enough salads. My favorite would be greens as flavorful as you can get them, then I love Rancho Gordo beans. I cook a pot of beans, take them out in one cup increments, place in Ziploc and freeze them. I take them out when I need them and put them on the greens, add an egg and good salty cheese. If I ever write a cookbook, it will be about salads and dressings.
More:Led by Buddig family, Old Wisconsin Sausage celebrates 75 years, grows with protein snacks
Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or Wisconsin natives, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or visiting chefs. To suggest individuals to profile, email [email protected]