Door County’s Savory Spoon Cooking School also plans culinary tours

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Kristine M. Kierzek

Janice Thomas first tasted French cuisine as a young child in Oregon. These early meals created fond memories, but also the basis for her love of food, cooking and travel.

For years, she moved back and forth between Arizona and Door County, where her husband’s family had a home. She trained as a nurse, but often spoke of one day having her own cooking school. When her husband found a place in Ellison Bay, they started the Savory Spoon Cooking School.

Thomas has now spent nearly two decades teaching people how to cook and leading culinary tours in Mexico, Spain, Italy, China and France. She believes cooking is something anyone can do, and she wants to make it fun and accessible.

After closing classes during the pandemic, she has seen renewed interest. Thomas leads classes weekly and brings in guest chefs for classes and special events throughout the summer season. It also offers a selection of cooking tools, imported canned fish and other picnic essentials in its retail area. For the full schedule of events, visit savoryspoon.com.

Question: How did you start cooking?

Answer: My mother was a good cook, not a gourmet cook. Our family kitchen has always been a welcoming place. But really in the first year, that’s when my interest really arose. I lived in a small town in southern Oregon that was the size of Ellison Bay. There was a class of eight… and two people were that family (from France) who served such memorable food. I would never have been exposed to that. It was really a base: my mother creating this welcoming place and eating these gastronomic dishes with this family…

I returned to their hometown in France. I lived there. … The week before school started here for my 19th season this year, I met this woman in Portland. We did a road trip along the Oregon Coast.

Q: So how did you decide to take up cooking as a profession?

A: In fact, my first profession was an emergency room nurse right out of college. I never forgot the fact that I loved food. At some point, my husband and I decided to get involved with some restaurants. We stayed a bit involved in food, but it was a franchise, so very different from what we do now.

Savory Spoon's Culinary Shop has everything you need to be a better cook.

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. Her parents had a home in Door County. I said I go there every summer. …At the end of the day, I would say you have to have a business there. He said, well, you pay rent for 12 months and you earn 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, a 160-year-old log house. We had the cooking school there for three years.

We’ve always said if cooking school goes we’d love it, if not we’ll have the best food in Door County. It went so well that we knew we had to get him out of our house. Around this time, the old school at Ellison Bay was put up for sale. We caught it and have been here ever since. It was built in 1879.

Q: Where did your first food tour take place?

A: Oaxaca, Mexico. It was 19 years ago, and half of the people with me were from Tucson, Arizona, and the other half from Peninsula School of Art in Door County. There were two women I knew in Tucson who were doing Day of the Dead tours. I teamed up with them because they knew the area but had never done the culinary part.

I also belong to AICP and there is a conference every year in a major city. You meet food writers, photographers. There was not even a culinary tourism segment in the organization at that time. We were creating our own. Once I connect with a person or place, I do my homework, check hotels, restaurants, everything. Sometimes it takes two years to do this homework before I even start opening it on my website. I do not use a tourist bus company. I am the guide.

Q: What have you learned from cooking with others?

A: Often someone will say to me, how can you stand it with all these people running around? In my mind, everyone is doing their best. They’re on one recipe, and I’m the glue for it all. I wouldn’t do this if it drove me crazy.

To me it is so clear that there is no right or perfect way. In baking, you have to be precise, but that’s why we measure everything. Understanding that everyone comes to it with a different perspective helps. I think it’s good for other people to cook with complete strangers.

The Savory Spoon Cooking School sign has a Wisconsin touch.

Q: How do you find your guest chefs to teach each season?

A: Does anyone do anything better than me? Is this their specialty? So Sweetie Pie’s, their specialty is pies. … Then there’s a girl in Sister Bay who has the most wonderful croissants, and she does croissant classes. … In past summers, it was every week that we had an outside person. Now the numbers are so tight that it’s a little different.

Q: What has been the biggest influence on your approach to cooking?

A: I would say patience and compassion. My husband is a great cheerleader. At a certain age, when I said I was going to Paris and the Cordon Bleu this summer, he said to me, “Go ahead! There was never a roadblock in that direction.

Q: What is the #1 lesson you want people to learn in every class?

A: The confidence to do one of the things again. We typically make five recipes in three hours.

Q: What is your favorite recipe to teach?

A: I love teaching two pies, one blueberry and one sweet and sour chocolate. The expression on people’s faces when they realize how easy it is to make, and yet it looks like it came from a French bakery. That I teach for the look on their face. What I really like to teach are sauces and salsas because it teaches people that you can have a piece of fish and four different ways to make it taste completely different.

Q: What do you always bring back from your travels?

A: Salt. It’s a great thing to pick up when traveling, and if you’re traveling, you want something not heavy. If you are in Spain, bring back mountains of saffron. It’s light.

Q: Do you have a favorite salt?

A: I love this one from Hawaii, a black salt. Also, when I take people to Sicily, we go to the salt pans of Trapani. It’s such a great experience. They still have a few of the windmills in the salt yard and the men are in big rubber boots raking the salt.

Q: What is the meal you cook yourself?

A: I don’t have enough salads. My favorite would be as flavorful greens as possible, so I love the Rancho Gordo beans. I cook a casserole of beans, take them out in one cup increments, place them in Ziploc and freeze them. I take them out when I need them and put them on the greens, add an egg and some good salty cheese. If I ever write a cookbook, it will be about salads and dressings.

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Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or native Wisconsinites, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or guest chefs. To suggest people to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com.

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