Cooking is often a family affair in our household, but now that my son is older, he's progressed past helping me stir and measure or dropping chocolate chips into the cookie dough. Luckily for us there are great Chicago-area options that not only help budding gourmet chefs develop their palates, but also educate them to enjoy being lifelong cooks and healthy eaters as well. To see what these cooking schools were all about, William, 11, joined a couple of classes.
Chefs for a Day
The scent of warm apple cider wafts through the air at Chefs For A Day in Willowbrook. In the sunny, comfortable space, a group of boys and girls are putting on aprons and sipping cider being ladled out by chef/owner Laura Valcour.
Gathered around a stainless steel table in the center of a professional restaurant-style kitchen, today's class is eager to start making homemade pretzels and fruit salad. First they add the ingredients and knead the dough, while Chef Laura directs them and answers questions. Next the class moves on to knife skills, and soon younger kids are using plastic kitchen knives to chop their fruit, while the more experienced chefs are dicing with stainless steel knives and a confidence many adults would admire.
Soon each chef is sitting down to a hot pretzel with salt, spicy mustard or cinnamon-sugar. Parents are encouraged to sample the pretzels, cider and a fruit salad peacock whose tail features the products of the lesson. Everyone is eager to share what they learned. Co-owner Ruby Melliza hands out kids' cooking magazines to parents as the class wraps up.
"We have a real emphasis on healthy eating and knowing where your food comes from," says Chef Laura, who has won the prestigious Those Who Excel Award of Excellence from the Illinois Board of Education for her work in hands-on cooking in local schools and for promoting nutrition education. "We have a farm-to-kitchen connection with locally sourced produce from Twin Garden Farms in Harvard, Ill. We want to help all of our young chefs learn to be locavores!"
The Chopping Block
The storefront of The Chopping Block in Lincoln Square is filled with cookbooks, linens, kitchen gadgets and a lavish demonstration kitchen. We are taken upstairs to the "hands-on" kitchen-a long, sunlit room with several "kitchens" set up like a home chef's dream. My son and two other teenage boys are here to learn to make a homemade meatball calzone and caesar salad from Chef Luke Salmon.
Taking turns chopping garlic, mixing meat with seasonings and herbs, and forming meatballs for the oven, the three boys are soon talking about how much they enjoy cooking and eagerly moving on to rolling out the dough for their calzones.
"Keep things simple, seasonal and approachable," says Chef Sara Salzinsky, chef/instructor and curriculum coordinator. "I like to emphasize that you don't need too many ingredients to make food taste and look great. By putting together just a few flavorful ingredients and cooking them properly, you'll have a winning dish."
Soon the boys are whipping up caesar salad dressing and homemade croutons. The calzones come out of the oven just in time to be served with the salad, family-style, at a round dining table set in a corner of the room. Parents and siblings share the results and
"Cooking with kids is really satisfying," he says with a smile, packing up the few leftovers for us to take home. "They just dive right in, ready to learn and have fun."