CAPE PORPOISE – Jill Strauss, president of Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School, thinks she may have found what she wants to be when she grows up: a pizzaiolo. Strauss spent 15 years as a public school gifted and talented teacher, and had a career in print and radio journalism before she decided to follow her “great passion for cooking, entertaining, and fire” to open a cooking school with her partner of 20 years, Valerie Glynn.
The women have always enjoyed entertaining in their home, especially hosting dinner parties.
“Friends were always saying, ‘You should do this for more people,’ but life gets in the way of our passions sometimes,” said Strauss.
When Strauss did decide to follow her dream, it led her to Italy, where she studied with Enzo Coccia, a fourth-generation pizzaiolo. It was a real learning experience for Strauss.
“In Italy, most, if not all pizzaiolis are men. They are greatly respected for the skill and usually command a better than average salary,” she said. “My teacher was used to consulting with women from around the world. He spoke a little English, pretended to speak none, and was a hard taskmaster. I learned a great deal from him and he learned a few things from me, I hope.”
At Jillyanna’s, Strauss leads hands-on, 31?2-hour classes on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, as well as private sessions, in the art of rustic pizza making. Students spend time learning to stretch dough, prepare herbs and even poke a live fire in the wood-fired oven where the pizzas are cooked.
Students also spend time in an indoor teaching kitchen equipped with gas and electric ovens. The goal is to help students develop the skill to create Italian-inspired food their own home. Strauss has been amazed at the reaction to Jillyanna’s, which opened for business last year.
“We’ve had incredible response and continue to get a lot of inquiries. Our customers tell us they had no idea it would be this much fun,” said Strauss. It’s a very happy feeling when you’re harnessing all your talents and people love you for it.”
Q What were your most important needs in getting started?
A Well, I had the advantage of being older, not going into this as a kid. I had done a lot of things in my life. I thought, “Why didn’t I do this earlier? It’s so much fun.” But I couldn’t have done it earlier. It took all of my experiences to get me here. I did go to Johnson and Wales and graduated seven years ago, but came out wondering, “What am I going to do with this?” But everything fell into place. I did need help, though, and when my partner Valerie retired from teaching we thought it would be a good time [to try a cooking school]. I love to play with fire and we enjoy entertaining people in our home.
Q What was there about your upbringing that gave you the courage to venture out on your own?
A I grew up in the early 1960s and was most influenced by two important women: my mother and Julia Child. Julia Child also influenced my mother, as she often cooked from Julia’s books. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was working as a Portland Phoenix food columnist and had the chance to meet Julia in Boston during a Boston University celebration of her life. I sent Julia the story and she replied with a very kind note about the article.
My mother was a very good cook and excellent baker. She was also theatrical, whimsical, and loved to entertain – which is a good thing since my father needed her to throw elaborate parties for his colleagues and clients. My father was a “madman” – he was an influential advertising executive in New York City and he hobnobbed with very important media people of the time. My mother set a beautiful table with the finest china, linens and silver inherited from her mother. We frequently dined out at the finest restaurants (usually French) in New York City.
Q What do you think the advantages are of being a female entrepreneur?
A I love my small business. It’s great fun to put all of my passions together. I don’t know if being a woman has helped or hurt me. I never really think about that. I just think about being the best I can be, continuing to learn, continuing to be a caring teacher and fun hostess. There is no focus on gender; it doesn’t seem to be a factor these days.
Q What advice would you give an aspiring woman entrepreneur?
A My advice to any young person would be to follow your passion. It can be difficult, there are many distractions and sometimes we get caught up in doing what we think we have to do. But you’ll be happier and healthier if you stick to your passion; with it life is so much better. It doesn’t mean it’s the easy path but it will be the best path in the long run.
Q If you knew then what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
A I would have done this earlier. It’s easier to do this kind of work when you’re younger and stronger. It can be difficult later in life to take something like this on but it is also invigorating. The good news in this business is, you always eat!
– Faith Gillman
Jillyanna’s Woodfired Cooking School