Ryan Thornburg’s kitchen at Bistro on the Boulevard, located on the high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in downtown St. Joseph, is designed for high-volume professional cooking with an eight-burner gas range, large flat-topped grill, cavernous ovens, vat-sized mixer, warming cabinets and multi-use work stations.
There are also a myriad of gadgets—the gelato maker turns steadily, producing the flavor of the day, a panini maker is ready to meld slices of artisan bread with layers of meat and cheese, and the deep fryer simmers with oil in preparation for quickly crisping the hand-sliced thin sticks of potatoes, turning them into golden brown pomme frites served with house-made mayonnaise.
Thornburg, the executive chef at the Bistro, also has another professional kitchen, this one designed for preservation and bottling the products he creates for Thornburg and Company. Here, in a kitchen in what was once a candy store in the Fairplain section of Benton Harbor, he and his wife, Julie, simmer the rich fruits of Southwest Michigan in a 33-gallon copper bowl, creating preserves made from heirloom apples, black raspberries, Bartlett pears, Stanley plums and heirloom tomatoes gathered from area farms. They also preserve locally collected honey made from bees feeding on star thistle, blueberry blossoms or wildflowers, and they purchase artisan maple syrup and add another layer of flavors to the thick golden syrup, sometimes aging it in a whiskey barrel or adding fragrant vanilla and spices. They’re just releasing a line of balsamic vinegars. It’s a big job, one requiring ladles, sieves, a processor and stacks of gleaming glass jars.
But when Thornburg outfitted the kitchen in the family’s new home—a farm house on an acre of land in the countryside of Lincoln Township east of Stevensville, Michigan—he went small, not large. The focus here was creating a family-friendly cooking environment.
“It’s your typical kitchen,” Thornburg says. “There’s a microwave above the stove, though we don’t use that much at all, a KitchenAid side-by-side refrigerator and a KitchenAid gas range and convection oven. I don’t grill outside much; I’d rather sear meats and fish in a skillet on top of the range and then pop it into a 400-degree convection oven. It gives the food a nice crust.”
And though Thornburg could have his choice of small appliances (this area is, after all, the headquarters for Whirlpool, Maytag and KitchenAid), he has little besides a food processor, coffee grinder and blender. “I’m not big into gadgets,” Thornburg says. “Most of the stuff I do is with knives. I like Japanese knives, I like the steel and feel of them. I use the KitchenAid food processor to make compound butters. I took some of our hot green peppers, dried them in the oven—the convection oven circulates the air and is probably 35 to 40 degrees higher than a conventional oven—and then flaked them in the food processor.”
Thornburg grew up outside the small town of Watervliet, Michigan, and his father always has had a large garden where he grew vegetables and had a couple of fruit trees. So when it was time for the couple to buy a house to share with their children from previous marriages—Mark, age 13, and Ethan, 8—they had a Green Acres-like discussion about where to live. Julie, in the Eva Gabor role, wanted downtown St. Joseph with its sidewalks making it easy to walk to the restaurants, coffee shops, winery and stores. Ryan, channeling Eddie Albert, wanted to be in the country. After driving around to look at property, they chose this 1930s farmhouse with a renovated barn (now a garage and storage area with a game room above).
“Our neighbors grew up in this house and now live next door,” says Thornburg, noting that he had always wanted to live in the country. “There are working farms around here. One of my neighbors raises grapes for Welch’s, another grows soybeans and corn.”
“Ryan doesn’t like to have close neighbors,” Julie says. “I don’t mind. But this is only five minutes from town, so it’s a great location for Ryan to have his herb garden and grow vegetables.”
The family rarely eat outs and Thornburg cooks three to four nights a week. “We eat on the fly,” he says, as he and Julie discuss what to do with the chicken breasts, squash, tomatoes and broccoli that are in the refrigerator.
“I just pick up stuff at the store and then Ryan cooks whatever I’ve bought,” she says.
Tonight it is decided that they’ll make a chicken cacciatore-like dish with sautéed chicken breasts and chopped tomatoes. The squash will be baked and the broccoli steamed.
“I put up the pot rack,” Thornburg says about the circular rack loaded with pots and pans hanging above the granite countertop. “I like to be able to see my pans.” They also have a deep double sink with one side large enough to hold a turkey.
But despite belonging to a professional chef, one who also makes and jars his own line of foods, the Thornburg home kitchen is cozy and accessible. And it’s definitely a place to cook.
“I have really good Calphalon pans and I have a cast iron grill skillet,” Thornburg says. “I love it. I just crank up the heat and get cooking.”