With more than 30 years of culinary experience, chef Forrest “Kipp” Thomas has reached a point in his life where he has tried a wide variety of things – both recipe-wise and career-wise. And, right now, he’s reached a point where he really enjoys what he does.
His latest life twist and turn have brought him to the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center on Madison’s south side where, since the middle of this past summer, he teaches kids how to cook, serves them delicious dishes and runs his very successful catering business – Kipp’s Cuisine – out of the Badger Rock kitchen.
“This is the perfect fit for me. It’s been a very good thing,” Thomas tells Madison365 in an interview in the lobby at the Center for Resilient Cities, where Badger Rock is housed, on Rimrock Road. “Being involved in the community center and the school and the kitchen and all the things that take place here is new and exciting. It was something that you were kind of looking for but not knowing you were looking for it … if that makes any sense. I basically wanted to get involved with my community more and this is the perfect place.
“I had done catering here in the past, but I didn’t know all of the logistics about what this building offered,” Thomas continues. “I didn’t know that the Madison school district was part of upstairs. All of the incredible sustainability and agriculture that goes on here. I’ve learned much more about gardening myself. The community nights here are incredible.”
The Badger Rock Middle School is a public charter school with an interdisciplinary, project-based learning program focused on environmental sustainability. Three-quarters of the students live in the nearby neighborhoods. It is part of Center for Resilient Cities building, a leading community-inspired collaboration that unites education, urban agriculture, energy and environmental sustainability, resilience research and neighborhood programming in a vibrant new gathering space.
The people at Badger Rock are very excited to have Thomas working in the building including Hedi Rudd, master of First Impressions at Badger Rock, who has been not-so subtlely listening in on our interview and good-humoredly interjecting every once in a while.
“We are truly fortunate to have Kipp as a part of the Badger Rock Family,” Rudd tells Madison365. “He fills a much-needed void for our students and families as he provides a friendly face, a warm meal and kind words. He helps in any way that he can and has never said no to an empty stomach or in need of a listening ear.”
Peng Her, co-chair of the Badger Rock Middle School Governance Council, agrees with Rudd.
“Kipp’s ability to relate to students and work with them in the kitchen not only serves as positive role model for the students but also an opportunity for the students to learn about potential careers in the culinary arts,” Her tells Madison365.
Thomas loves the Badger Rock kitchen that serves as the home base for his Kipp’s Catering business.
“It’s helped me quite a bit. The kitchen here is great and I like being with the young people,” Thomas says. “I’ve always had teenage kids and college kids working for me in the restaurant business but now I’m teaching two culinary classes on Tuesday and Thursday where I’ve learned a lot more patience because you have to capture the young people’s attention right away.”
By day, Thomas is also a cook for the Sun Prairie School District where he is part of a focus group that designs the menus and the recipes. He’s part of Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School (CHUMS) cafeteria staff, where he works Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. “It’s another thing where I’m working with food and with kids,” Thomas says. “It’s fascinating to me, because in the restaurant business we just cook and hope that people will eat and enjoy. At school, breakfasts and lunches are definitely designed for the multitude of students’ different tastes and everything. So, you have three different entrees that are offered to them.
“It’s interesting because when we were growing up, we took a tray that was in front of us and it was what it was,” Thomas says. “We’re in a different generation now where kids are eating so much on the go. A lot of kids are coming to school and saying to us in the cafeteria that they didn’t have dinner last night. So, I’m finding myself in a different society where a lot of kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
On top of the Sun Prarie job, Thomas estimates that he works about 10-15 hours a week – including hosting an occasional soul food dinner night – at Badger Rock. At both places, there is a high percentage of students of color. Thomas takes that to heart.
“I know I’m a role model for a lot of younger people in Sun Prairie and at Badger Rock. I want to make an impact on a kid’s decision making who might be having a rough time or going through a rough moment,” Thomas says. “Some of the kids have listened to me when they might not listen to somebody else. I take advantage of my color in that position. I want to be a positive role model and influence.”
Thomas says that he takes it upon himself to get to know the young men and women – both out at Sun Prairie and at Badger Rock Middle School – individually.
“These kids are at that age where they still want to keep learning and I enjoy teaching them about cooking,” he says. “They need to know that they don’t have to wait or mom or dad to get home to eat. They can cook something delicious themselves if they are hungry. That’s the way I was raised. I had to fix food for my twin sisters and when my mom came home, she was looking for a plate for herself. She was tired!
“But these young minds that want to learn something is so cool to see. And those ones who are reluctant at first, those are the ones you have to get them interested,” he continues. “You help them to accept something … accepting new things. It’s a challenge, but it can be done.
“And who knows? Maybe one or two of these young men and women will one day be working for me? That would be a great compliment,” he adds.
Many of the young people are too young to know what most of the rest of the Madison community knows – Thomas has been making delicious food in Madison for more than 22 years. Thomas originally came to Madison from Milwaukee to team up with Tim Jordan and Michael Miller to open North American Rotisserie in Fitchburg in 1996. Their name changed to Kipp’s Down Home Cookin’ and their reputation grew even more when they relocated to Monroe Street in close proximity to Camp Randall Stadium a few years later.
“I miss those days of North American Rotisserie and Kipp’s Down Home Cookin’,” he says. “But people keep it alive. And I love that. The majority of things that I cater are from those old menus.”
The Great Recession helped lead to the closing of the Monroe Street business, but Kipp’s catering business has still been going strong. Meanwhile, since 2009, Thomas has also been the executive chef at The Coliseum, Pooley’s and Lucky’s 1313, before taking his current positions in Sun Prairie and Badger Rock.
“I’m more at peace now with what I do now. It helps to not be involved with the bar business and not being overall responsible for five or six cooks who may not be on the same page as you,” Thomas says. “I’m definitely more at peace in a sense of what I do and not worrying about what’s happening at the restaurant when I’m not there. Those are things that can take a toll on a person.
“It’s hard and it can be long hours, but there are customers that won’t let you forget how much they love your food,” he adds. “They want you to cater this or that or their Super Bowl party. That’s a compliment. When somebody tells you how much they enjoyed your dish, that just makes it all worth it.”
Thomas and I laugh about how in the food business you have to hope strangers love your food to be successful.
“That’s true. You have to put the work in and you have to have the drive, but, in the end, it’s all about food. It has to be really good,” he says. “Being an entrepreneur has been very exciting for me, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s also tough.”
Of all his great dishes, Thomas is probably most famous for his mac ‘n’ cheese. It’s not only the recipe but the process Thomas goes through that makes it so good. But it’s not Thomas’s favorite thing to cook.
“I love cooking Italian. My best friend’s dad growing up in Milwaukee owned an Italian restaurant. My closest friends and family love it when I cook Italian. I love cooking foods that a lot of people don’t expect from me and when I get a chance to do it, I love it – German, Asian cuisine,” he says. “The soul food that I cook and what people know me for, however, that stuff is the stuff I grew up on and it’s the fundamentals of my style of who I am.”
How hard is it not to put on a lot of pounds when you’re around delicious food all the time?
“Oh, man. I’ve been up-and-down fat,” laughs Thomas. “But for the most part, I don’t eat my own food. I stopped basically tasting and testing my food years ago. After all these years, you just have a certain touch in what goes in something.
“You have to have self-discipline,” he adds. “I tell people that I touch food so much that sometimes I feel like I’m getting nutritional value from touching it. Because I touch food 24 hours a day sometimes when I’m doing events.”
Thomas recently started working at midnight on a day before he would cater for 800-900 people at the Urban League of Greater Madison’s MLK Breakfast. He loves doing events where he is part of a community that’s doing great and inspirational things. Coming up in early March, for example, he will once again be a judge for the Alpha Kappa Alpha’s annual Men Who Cook Scholarship Fundraiser.
“I like to stay busy. I’m one of the lucky people in this town in the catering business. If there’s a Martin Luther King Luncheon needed, I’ve been fortunate to do it up at the Capitol. If there’s a Martin Luther King Breakfast, I’ve been fortunate to do that stuff,” Thomas says. “I see you at different events and I see Hedi out and about. It’s a lucky position for me to be in to be able to be at all of these great places with people in the community.
“The customer base here in this city has kept my food alive. I feel like I’m a lucky guy sometimes,” he adds. “Here at Badger Rock, they have made it possible to let me be more involved here and to be involved with the kids … so I appreciate that. I’m really enjoying it. I look forward to it. If you can’t get up and be excited about your work every day, then you’re in the wrong field.”