story by LAURA BROULLIRE | photos by HEIDI HODGES
For two Door County cooking instructors, their classes are about so much more—sharing a piece of history, locally sourced ingredients or international cultural experiences.
Better fasten your aprons.
Older adults in Northeastern Wisconsin have the opportunity to continue learning and take classes in a range of subjects through a special partnership with Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC).
The Learning in Retirement series of courses runs year-round with emphasis on the unique interests, passions and challenges of seniors in this area. Classes are held at the NWTC campus in Sturgeon Bay, as well as satellite or class-specific locations throughout Door County.
Whether you are interested in baking the best pie crust, canning tomatoes, using herbs or making maple syrup, there is a course for you. Additional food-related classes include Eating for One, Using and Caring for Kitchen Knives, It’s All About Beer and Wine 101.
The registration deadline has passed for fall 2018 classes.
Registration for spring 2019 will start Wed. Dec. 2, with a kickoff party from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the NWTC lounge. For information or a complete spring course catalog, visit www.nwtc.edu/LIR.
The Ellison Bay building in which owner Janice Thomas offers seasonal cooking classes was originally the village’s two-room schoolhouse, built in 1879. It served a range of purposes over the years, including a stint as post office in the 1930s. The historic building found new life as a cooking school when it was purchased by Thomas and her husband Michael in 2004.
“People in the community were so excited when we bought it instead of turning it into condos or changing it,” said Janice Thomas, who has studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Thomas wasn’t always a culinary instructor. “I was an ER nurse. That was my profession and my training,” Thomas said. After she and Michael married, they got involved in the culinary world, at one point owning four restaurants plus a catering business.
“When we sold those, we said, ‘We are never getting in the restaurant business again.’” Later, Thomas, who was then living in Arizona, found herself working at a cooking school in Tucson. “I did some marketing for the school and taught a class, and I found that I loved that. And so I started teaching.”
Dreaming of semi-retiring and moving to their favorite summertime vacation destination, the Thomases set their sights on opening a Door County cooking school—which they did and quickly outgrew their original location.
“Around that time, the old school came up for sale, and we bought it.” Renovations took two years and included restoring the original hardwood floors and school bell while updating the building with state-of-the-art kitchen appliances.
Today, Thomas offers more than 60 hands-on classes and special tastings for locals and tourists alike from June through October. As the local ingredients evolve through the seasons, so do Thomas’s classes—from savory green bean and fennel salads plus rhubarb desserts in spring to butternut squash latkes and apple pies in fall. She also welcomes guest chef instructors and features kids’ classes and private events, plus farm-to-table dinners with local Chef Matt Chambas.
Things don’t slow down for Thomas in the off-season, however. That’s when she leads tour groups on culinary vacations around the world, from Mexico to Italy, France, China and more.
“Once people start traveling with me, they don’t stop,” she said. “I keep having to find new places.” After her most recent weeklong trip to Spain in May, Thomas stayed abroad a few extra days to scout out a new destination. “Seville,” she said. “For next year.”
Locally, Thomas embraces Door County’s culture by incorporating locally grown produce from Hidden Acres Farm, for example. She also encourages parents to share family culture with their kids by cooking together and keeping cherished recipes and traditions alive.
“It is our responsibility as adults to pass on an interest in cooking. The next generation—they don’t appreciate that our food comes from the earth. They’ve grown up in this era of drive-throughs and snacking while playing video games,” she said. “I bet everyone has a little tickle in their heart for one recipe. It is our responsibility to pass that along to the next generation.”
The Flour Pot
Gina Guth has fond childhood memories of being in the kitchen while her mother Jean Guth baked Belgian pies—a family tradition brought to this country by her ancestors. “My great-great-grandma was a first-generation Belgian immigrant,” said Guth.
She recalls pies being spread on every horizontal surface of their home, including atop beds and ironing boards. “My mother would be making about 200 pies for (Belgian harvest festival) Kermiss,” she said, in the traditional flavors of rice, raisin, apple or prune. “Sometimes she’d have extra crust and say, ‘Run down to the store and get a can of cherry pie filling,’” Guth said. “That’s where the cherry Belgian Pie came from.”
But after her mother passed away in 1981, Guth realized she’d never learned her mother’s pie-making process. “The recipe is one thing,” Guth said, “but there’s all these little tricks and tips and steps.”
“I was in the kitchen, but my mother never sat me down and said, ‘This is how you make the dough. This is how you do it,’” she said. With the help of her former mother-in-law, who has also since passed away, they were able to re-create Guth’s mother’s recipe.
“We worked it out together.”
Guth said she was lucky in that her mother used recognizable measuring standards in her Belgian pie recipe. Other curators of their mothers’ secret family recipes were less fortunate. “Their recipes would call for a nickel’s worth of yeast and a pinch of this or that.”
Several years later, Guth was asked to take part in a United Way fundraiser and made 60 Belgian pies. “Because of the publicity from that, St. Norbert College contacted me and asked me to do a demonstration. That was in 2012.”
Since then, Guth has taught two classes each year for the De Pere college. But it wasn’t until she stepped away from her full-time job and found commercial kitchen space at Maplewood Country Cupboard on Highway 42 that The Flour Pot came to fruition.
“My kids were encouraging me, ‘You’ve got a niche in making Belgian pies.’” She gives classes most Saturdays from May through October to groups of six students.
“I had no idea whether people would take the class,” Guth said. “But it all fell into place.” She’s also added a weekly dessert-making class where students can try their hands at kneecaps, cookies, cinnamon rolls, cheesecakes and more. “I love to bake and I love people,” Guth said. “For me, this is a perfect fit.”
The pie-making classes are also a perfect fit with the strong Belgian population of Southern Door, as well as tourists from other parts of Wisconsin and beyond.
Guth hopes today’s kids don’t miss out on learning about their family’s cultural history in the kitchen. “We need to instill in our younger generation a love of baking. Start them young. Let them be a part of it,” Guth said. “Including the clean-up—that’s an important part, too.”