Cooking and acting are seemingly worlds apart, but for chef Thor Erickson, “It is all a convergence,” he said.
As an instructor and the chair of Central Oregon Community College’s Cascade Culinary Institute in Bend, “I’m able to take all this great stuff that I learned and give it to people,” Erickson said. “But I’m on stage all the time when I’m teaching culinary arts.”
Erickson, 50, a veteran of Bend stages and restaurants, describes himself as shy and introverted. One of the things that appealed about cooking when he began 30-some years ago was the fact that, “in the old days, I was behind a wall,” he said.
When it became trendy for kitchens to open up so that diners could see chefs and their crews at work, “It was like, ‘Wow, this is a little more like being on stage,’” he said.
Erickson even borrowed from acting before that, when he waited tables. To combat his shyness, Erickson would create characters to gird himself.
“I would speak in accents,” Erickson said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m doing way better speaking in this British accent than I did just being myself.’
“I love character study. You read a script and, yeah, there are the words, but there’s everything else that’s kind of between the lines,” he said. “What would somebody who says these words act like? What would they look like? How would they posture themselves? I love that stuff.”
In conversation, Erickson toggles smoothly between the topics of acting and cooking. Were it as easy to switch between the two in his day-to-day life, odds are audiences would get to see more of Erickson on local stages. His more recent roles have included playing Herod in “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2018, and Albin and his drag queen alter-ego, Zaza, in “La Cage Aux Folles” last month, both Theater in the Park productions.
On Sept. 26, Erickson will return to the stage, participating in the variety show “A Temporary Condition,” featuring sketches, stories, art, music and more at Volcanic Theatre Pub in Bend.
Writing, painting and ‘Little House’
Chefs are nothing if not good at multitasking, and Erickson’s creativity is not limited to the kitchen or the stage. If you ever saw his old punk rock band, Mendez Faith, well, that was Erickson on bass. He also paints abstracts, and has sights on his first-ever exhibit next spring. If you ever picked up the magazine 1859, you’ve possibly read his “Homegrown Chef” column, in which he shares stories and recipes from his adventures in cooking. He’s also in the process of writing a cookbook.
Those who know Erickson well may still be surprised to learn just far back his roots in entertainment stretch: all the way to the late 1970s, when he began “dabbling” in movies and TV shows around Sonora, California, where he grew up.
“It was kind of this Gold Rush area, and so there was a lot of backdrop for Westerns and things like that,” he said.
Around the age of 9, he began playing a classmate of the Ingalls children at the one-room schoolhouse on the popular family drama “Little House on the Prairie.”
He was on the show for three seasons.
“The first year, it was filmed in that area, and then I was invited to come and be on that show, and so I went to Pasadena. We had some cousins that lived there, and so I did that. … I was an extra for the first couple of years, and then the third year I was in it, I had lines,” he said.
He left the show around 1980 amid the turmoil of his parents’ divorce.
“I felt like I needed to be the glue,” said Erickson, who has four sisters — two younger, two older. Meanwhile, television success earned him more headaches than accolades from his real-life classmates in Sonora.
“I’d go back to my small-town school up in Northern California, and get my ass kicked, because it was like, ‘What are you doing on that corny show?’ And people are so closed-minded there,” he said.
Nevertheless, Erickson had caught the acting bug, and “Little House” led to some other small roles in TV and film.
“I was pretty serious about it. I knew that that’s, really, what I wanted to do,” he said. “Some of the folks that I was working with were like, ‘Man, you’re going to do this. You’re on the rise.’ But then that stopped.”
No matter. Those years were formative for Erickson, who says he wouldn’t trade them. Alienation led him to books and poetry — he favored the classics and the Beats — and punk rock bands such as The Ramones, Flipper and Dead Kennedys.
“I really found a lot of comfort in their words,” he said.
Before long, Erickson was channeling his aggression into punk music himself, picking up the bass at the urging of his friends, with whom he formed a punk band, Mendez Faith
Acting, for the moment, was pushed to the back burner. But his evolving sympathies remained with the theater kids.
“In high school … I was a misfit and a loner,” he said. “I hooked up with these guys and playing some punk rock music, but I also found (from) hanging out with the drama kids they were the same as well. Misery loves company, and the kids who don’t fit in seem to group together. It’s ironic in a way.”
Stepping into the kitchen
His professional chef father was Erickson’s first cooking mentor.
“None of (my sisters) had any interest at all in even boiling water,” said Erickson, who attended culinary school at a community college in Columbia, California.
In 1991, he moved to Lincoln City for a year, where he continued working in the restaurant industry.
“I didn’t realize in ’91 — well, it’s probably similar today — people’s idea of a good time in Lincoln City was gluing seashells to a board,” he said. “I was 22, and so I found myself just working all the time.”
Weekends were spent with friends in Portland, and when he learned that friends from back home in Sonora had moved to Bend, he visited.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s for me,’” he said of his visit.
In 1992, he moved to Bend, where he and his old bandmates reformed Mendez Faith.
“We hit it hard here, and played some shows,” Erickson said. When Tony Hawk visited a long-gone skate shop, Mendez Faith played while he skated the ramp there.
The band played a lot of gigs, but eventually fizzled. When they have reunited to play — such as when Mendez Faith reformed briefly for a member’s wedding a couple of years ago — the musical connection is immediate.
“It’s muscle memory. All of the old songs just come right out,” Erickson said.
Meanwhile, his career as a chef sizzled. It’s common to move around a lot in the food industry, and over the years, Erickson cooked at a lot of different eateries, learning sundry aspects of the business at restaurants including Le Bistro, A Cup of Magic, Scanlon’s, Appetite Delicatessen, Coho Grill, Robbie J’s and others.
Return to acting
In the late ’90s, friends urged him to head to Community Theatre of the Cascades, today known as Cascades Theatrical Company. He soon met Carol Bryant, co-founder and grand dame of community theater in Bend. She encouraged him to audition for a show she’d be directing, “First Night,” a dinner theater play at Bend Golf and Country Club.
He got the part. Being a two-person show, “it was such a great reintroduction,” he said. “It was very heavy.”
It went well, and he began appearing in more shows, including “The Heiress” and “The Children’s Hour” at CTC. When the 2nd Street Theater opened in 2001, he was in its first production, a series of one-act plays called “Short Stuff.”
“Doing theater again, allowed me to be somebody else. Yeah, I’m an introvert. I’m very hard on myself,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that I love about theater. I love the work.”
He appeared in numerous musicals and plays over the years, in a diverse array of roles, including the wholesome Brad in two productions of “The Rocky Horror Show” and an elf in “The Santaland Diaries.”
In 2001, Erickson met his future wife, Cathy Carroll, through the world of theater. An actor herself, she was in the comedy “Moon Over Buffalo” at CTC.
He took in the show with fellow actor Michael Coffman, who was set to appear in a future dinner theater production with Carroll, and wanted to see her perform.
“Cathy came out and she was playing this aunt, this elderly woman, and she was so good,” Erickson said, recalling how he told Coffman, “She’s a way better actor than you are. She’s your safety net. And she’s easy on the eyes.”
He then met Carroll at the home of “Moon Over Buffalo” cast member Don Delach, “And the rest is history,” he said. Friend Thomas Tsuneta, whom he met through theater, was his best man at the wedding.
“Theater really has meant a lot to me. All the greatest things that have happened in my life happened doing theater,” Erickson said.
When Carroll gave birth to their son, Jahn, in 2007, Erickson opted to be a stay-at-home dad for a while, and she worked in communications at the High Desert Museum.
“I said, ‘I’ll stay home. We’re going to spend as much money putting him somewhere as I’m going to make schlepping at a restaurant,” Erickson said. He stayed home for the next two years, but kept active on the food front, playing a small role in helping Sparrow Bakery develop its locally adored ocean roll.
“I’m not taking complete credit for it, but it was the Manhattan Project, if you will,” he said. “That’s kind of the ‘Just do it’ of Bend. People go, ‘Oh yeah, I was in on that too.’”
Teacher of the Year award
In 2009, Erickson was invited to teach a single cooking class by the culinary school’s co-founder, Julian Darwin.
Once in the classroom, Erickson was surprised to discover how much he had to share.
“I didn’t know I have all this stuff that I was holding inside that I can give to people,” he said. Darwin warned him that getting on full-time would be a challenge, “But I stuck with it.”
When Jungers Culinary Center, Cascade Culinary Institute’s home, opened in 2011, someone was needed to teach and run its restaurant, Elevation, “and I was that person,” Erickson said. “And so I’ve been there ever since.”
In 2013, he won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Cooking Teacher of the Year award.
“I got this letter saying, ‘You’ve been nominated by your peers,’” Erickson said. Then he got a second letter and an invitation to San Francisco. He was a top-three finalist.
“It was one of the most bizarre things, because I’m a guy who just does what he does. I believe just in cooking a product, you want to do it consistently and have a real high quality product, whether it’s grilling a steak, or making a souffle, or putting on a show, or delivering a lesson to students,” he said.
Yet there he was in San Francisco.
“I got off the escalator and there’s Thomas Keller,” Erickson said, referring to the author and James Beard Award-winning chef. “I (said) a couple of very nerve-laden words to him. … I was just starstruck to meet Thomas Keller.”
Erickson was shocked to hear his name called during the ceremony. Afterward, in the green room, he spotted Keller again, along with Alice Waters and José Andrés.
“Any major chef that you can imagine is in this green room drinking champagne and eating caviar — and congratulating me,” he said. “It was just, like, one of the most surreal moments of my life.”
He’d been teaching only four years at that point, and is still not sure who had nominated him.
“That’s one of those things that’s a mystery to me,” he said.
The award led to a 2015 invitation to teach at the Obama White House.
“They were on this program of finding locally sourced, humanely raised food, preservation,” Erickson said. Over the course of nine hours, he butchered two pigs and showed the White House kitchen staff how to make sausage, ham and more. “It was one of the hardest things in my career,” he said. “It was terrifying.”
The security vetting had been rigorous, and he wasn’t allowed to bring his own knives.
“Their knives were dull, so I had to take some extra time to sharpen them,” he said. “But it was great. It was fantastic.”
He didn’t meet any of the Obamas, but he did meet official photographer Pete Souza, who didn’t take any pictures.
“I wasn’t allowed to bring my cellphone,” he said. “My wife still jokes, she’s like, ‘I don’t believe it happened.’”
Hiatus and return to stage
When his son was born in 2007, Erickson was in a female version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” at 2nd Street Theater. He had dyed hair and a pencil-thin mustache from his role.
“He was not born while I was performing, thank God,” Erickson said. Nevertheless, in the baby photos, “I’m holding him, and I have this ridiculous look.”
Erickson’s priorities shifted, leading to eight years away from the stage — a hiatus that ended in 2015, when a 2004 production of “The Rocky Horror Show” was staged at the Tower Theatre. Erickson reprised his role as the hapless newlywed Brad.
“That was pretty magical, because JoEllen (Ussery) assembled 99.9% of the original group that did it,” Erickson said.
Along with “A Temporary Condition” on Sept. 26, he’ll be participating in “To Tell the Truth,” a storytelling program on Oct. 5 at Eagle Mountain Event Center in Bend.
Much of his time and energy is taken up by Cascade Culinary Institute and growing its three programs — culinary arts, baking and pastry arts and hospitality management — to meet the evolving needs of students.
“Just as the culinary world is constantly changing, we have to adapt to that,” he said. For instance, the school is getting a food truck this year to teach students to work in that business model.
Friend Michael Gesme, chairman of the Fine Arts and Communication department at the school and conductor of Central Oregon Symphony, said Erickson is the type of teacher “who’s absolutely willing to go to the mat for his students and his colleagues. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that has to happen early in the morning, or it’s something that has to happen late at night.”
Gesme said Erickson is a consummate planner, but also “a really great improviser, in a way that people would just assume that the way it happened was the way it was supposed to happen all along.”
Erickson regards teaching as “a performance,” he said, so much so that “just like going on stage, I get nervous before every class.”
He’s not only made peace with that fact — it also helps him excel.
“To me, being nervous is a great quality. It means I care,” he said. “And if I stop being nervous, I start to worry — I get nervous that I’m not nervous.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, email@example.com