Janice Laird is washing dishes when I meet her at her cooking school on a Friday evening. She quickly dries her hands to greet me, then ties her hair back with a rubber band from a nearby kitchen drawer. She and her husband are teaching a baking class in an hour, and she’s busily preparing the kitchen all the while we chat—but not before she brings me a mug of tea and four different kinds of pie to taste. She’s tweaking her chocolate silk pie recipe, and she wants to know what I think of the two different versions. They’re both delicious.
The cooking school, Jan’s on 4th, is inside a 100-year-old adobe home in the North Valley that Jan’s husband, C.E., renovated when they bought the place. It’s a small house, but taking down a couple walls and installing an industrial oven and six-burner rangetop made it into an ideal spot for small classes of aspiring cooks. Despite the fact that the couple doesn’t live in the house, it feels more like a family home than a restaurant prep kitchen.
Jan is busy this week—autumn and winter are always busy times for the school, and the school isn’t even her only gig. She started out working as a personal chef in 2004, and later began catering events. She still does those things now, in addition to teaching three cooking classes per week and doing a regular cooking segment on the local Fox TV station. C.E. teaches the baking classes, operates a made-to-order bakery and grows their own produce on a plot of land they have near the school. They do all this after raising seven children together. There is something to be said for the couple that toils together, I suppose.
Jan and C.E. have been operating the cooking school for nine years. They have some regular classes that they teach each year, like the 6-week cooking crash course that Jan teaches twice a year and the kid’s cooking camp that she does each summer. They also have classes that vary based on season, what’s available and what strikes their fancy at the time. “I own the place,” Jan says, grinning, “I can do whatever I want with it.” And she does. She’s taught classes on home preserving, on cooking Indian food, and on cooking with a range of dietary restrictions, from vegan food to diabetic cooking.
“I’m always looking for new ideas for the cooking school … and students are always recommending new things to me, so it never gets old around here.” I ask her if she’s considered teaching beer brewing classes, and she throws her hands up in mock surrender. “Robin, c’mon. Like I need more hobbies.”
The class that I attended after I chatted with Jan was all about baking pies—a very seasonally relevant pursuit. Because making pies well involves lots of technique and experience, this is a relatively hands-off class for me and the other 11 students who crowd into the warm kitchen, all dressed in patterned aprons that Jan provided. C.E., who has a soft voice and the calloused hands of a builder, shows us how to shape the pie dough quickly so that the butter in it doesn’t melt. Meanwhile, Jan plays sous chef, taking away and washing utensils once C.E.’s done with them and heating up some soup she made earlier to feed the students (it’s a three-hour-long class, right in the middle of dinnertime). You can tell that they’ve been doing this for years.
On the Jan’s on 4th website, the couple proudly proclaims the mission of their work: “Everything we do is based on our heartfelt belief that cooking and serving good food is an act of love.” As C.E. shows us how to weave the upper crust of a cherry pie into a delicate pattern, I recognize that everyone in that class is there because they want to show love to their families and friends—love by way of a freshly baked pie. And perhaps there are more pure or tender ways of expressing love, but, at the moment, I can’t quite think of any.
You can find out more about Jan's on 4th and their upcoming classes at janson4th.com.