Fresh herbs figure in dishes served at Wild Thyme Cafe

Wild Thyme Cafe and Bakery is the name on the sign, but fresh basil was front and center at Jody Briceland's restaurant this week.

Briceland had put some of the basil, bought from a grower with a hothouse in Hesston, up for sale at her counter and was incorporating the rest into dishes in her kitchen. She offered a visitor a fragrant whiff that, for a minute at least, erased thoughts of the cold and snow outside.

"Isn't it beautiful?" Briceland said. "His stuff is so tasty."

That Briceland would have so much of any fresh herb on hand in the middle of a Kansas winter is a good indication of her approach to cooking. She opened Wild Thyme near 53rd North and Maize Road in November. The interior is light and bright, with seating for about 25; Saltillo tile is about all that remains of the former occupant, a Mexican restaurant.

Briceland grew up learning how to cook from her mother, Alice, now 86, one of those homemakers "who could turn anything into a delicious meal," Briceland said. "We did an Italian chili here yesterday. That was my mom's recipe."

After graduating from Maize High School, she worked in a variety of jobs — a travel agent, managing a country club, running her own catering business. When her children were grown, she decided to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant.

To prepare herself, she took a job in the deli at GreenAcres, the health-food market on Wichita's east side, mainly to work with a classically trained chef who was then in charge. That chef left two weeks later, but Briceland stayed long enough to get an appreciation for many of the things that draw customers to GreenAcres, such as organic produce, unusual grains and ingredients used in gluten-, sugar- and dairy-free diets.

"I wanted to bring that out here (to Maize) because I had a lot of customers coming from out here," she said.

At Wild Thyme, Briceland offers some dishes for restricted diets but plenty of regular fare as well. Her menu is heavy on sandwiches, salads, baked goods and fresh-squeezed juice, with daily specials such as lasagna and sesame chicken.

Quiches have proven one of her most popular items, along with some creative items like sweet potato tamales and a "K-State potato salad," made with purple taters. A key part of her restaurant business is catering, thanks to customers of her former catering operation.

Briceland loves to cook, but she's not trying to do it all alone. She has a pastry chef, Heather Gilliam; a manager, Candace Martin, who's a culinary school grad; and a staff of high school- and college-age employees.

"They are so enthusiastic about this," she said. "We're a team."

Briceland said the long hours common to the restaurant business didn't scare her. The financial risk did. She reduced that by taking the location on North Maize, a little farther north than some Wichitans are used to driving. She said it's worked out great so far — except for a Google listing giving her phone number as that of a nearby Walmart. "I get about 30 calls a day," she said.