Kennebunkport pizza chef fires up backyard classes

BY Lori Valigra

PHOTo / Tim greenway
PHOTo / Tim greenway
Jill Strauss, president of Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School, holds a Neapolitan pizza at her school in Kennebunkport.

Jill Strauss jokes that when she moved to Maine 26 years ago, diner food was considered haute cuisine and pizza was served with french fries. Today Maine, especially the southeastern part, garners national accolades as a foodie haven. That reputation is feeding another trend: culinary tourism, which the World Food Travel Association in Portland, Ore., estimates has grown into a $150 billion industry annually.
Strauss and her partner, Valerie Glynn, both former teachers, combined their love of cooking with teaching to open a specialty pizza-making school, complete with an outdoor stone Mugnaini oven heated by apple and oak wood. They launched Jillyanna's Woodfired Cooking School this past June in their Kennebunkport home, and use fresh, locally sourced vegetables and seafood and import oil and other fine ingredients.

With Luciano Pavarotti's voice setting the scene, Strauss spoke to Mainebiz recently as she delicately slid a margherita pizza with a thin Neapolitan crust into the 750-degree oven, where it rose in 90 seconds into an artistically appointed meal garnished with fresh parsley. The edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: Why did you decide to teach pizza-making?

Jill Strauss: I spent more than 15 years of my life as a public school teacher. I've always vacillated between teaching and doing other things. Finally I gave up teaching and started writing about food for the Portland Phoenix and The Boston Globe. I went to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., one of the biggest cooking schools in the country.

The program was for career changers and was spread out over two years. I kept looking for ways that I could use my skills combining education, communication and my passion for cooking. I worked at the [Coastal Maine] Botanical Gardens helping to arrange celebrity dinners and got the idea for a school in an elegant setting. As Valerie was getting close to retirement, she said, 'Why don't you put your money where your mouth is?' Last year I went to Italy and studied with a fourth-generation pizzaiolo.

MB: Did you do market research to gauge demand?

JS: I didn't. I had a friend at Johnson & Wales who had done tons of research on Americans and pizza. She said Americans can't get enough pizza. I knew pizza would be attractive to lots of different people of different ages. The hook was pizza, though I want to cook other things as well.

We do seafood-inspired pizzas on Friday nights, Maine farms pizzas on Saturday and Italian classics on Sunday. We also hold separate events like the upcoming Thanksgiving-themed dinner.

We have no more than eight people in a class, and we've had about 100 students so far. Classes are $135, and the special dinners are about $20 more.

MB: What kinds of people attend?

JS: It is a culinary tourism attraction. We've had three women here who wanted a girls' night out. They were at least 40 to 50 years old. One never cooked and was terrified of coming. Our goal is to take people with different learning styles and levels and make them all happy at the same time. It is hands on, but it's as hands on as they want to be. People also do this for corporate bonding. And they have birthday celebrations.

MB: Do you have other culinary tourism competition locally?

JS: Michael Jubinsky in Lyman at Stone Turtle Baking has classes, but not in his home. And Stone Wall Kitchen has a class that's all demonstration, runs less than half the time and is priced less than us. Our classes are three and a half hours. It's a culinary experience. People get to know each other. Very few people show you how to make pizza in an oven like that [stone] as well as gas and electric and show you distinctive styles. My food becomes a part of them [the students].

MB: What would you eat right now if you could have anything?

JS: Chinese food. Maybe sushi. I like Asian food. Pizza is hard to resist, especially when it's hot. But when we have guests we try not to make it.