At Chopping Block, no such thing as too many cooks in the classroom

When Erica Rouleau got a pasta-rolling machine for her wedding anniversary, she was excited. But after the first time she used it, the excitement quickly wore off.

"It was lumpy and gross and inedible. We tried to eat it but we couldn't. The pasta got stuck in the machine… it was a big mess."

The shiny new machine was put back in the box. That is, until just recently, when Rouleau began a homemade pasta workshop at The Chopping Block, a recreational cooking school in Chicago's Merchandise Mart. The Wisconsin native and medical sales director drove over two hours to attend the class, a drive she says was well worth it.

During the class, Rouleau discovered what she did wrong the first time - she turned the crank too quickly, which caused the dough to tear. Now that she knows, she'll be trying out her anniversary present again, and coming back for more classes.

Janet Kirker, Rouleau's instructor, is a professional chef with 14 years experience in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Although she enjoys being a chef, she says teaching people to cook is extremely satisfying.

"When you know the right way to do something, it sets off a light bulb in people's head - people can really go home and use it."

Kirker says The Chopping Block doesn't just teach advanced skills, like making homemade pasta; they teach everyday techniques too, like how to chop an onion or grill a hamburger. She feels the demand for cooking classes is increasing.

"I think that people are recognizing that cooking is important, not just from an economic standpoint, but a health standpoint. They're more aware of what they're eating. People are asking, 'How can I make what I eat and make it taste good?'"

Shelley Young, owner of The Chopping Block, agrees.

"People want to know what they're putting in their bodies. There's a consciousness about it - just kind of eating well. Cooking is a great way to do that."

Creating a cooking school wasn't on Young's mind when she started The Chopping Block 11 years ago. She originally began the space as a retail store for culinary antiques, and then branched out to newer culinary implements.

Originally from Iowa, she worked as a chef both in San Diego and Chicago, and these experiences led to the idea for teaching cooking classes. At the beginning, she taught all the classes herself. She now employs over twenty chefs to teach thirty to forty classes per week at two locations in Chicago.

Young says her goal is to get the country to cook.

"I don't think there's really many vehicles to learn how to cook. It used to be that people were taught in the home, that people were taught in school. Now, it's really not in either one, generally speaking. For the most part, people don't have an educational vehicle for it. We're the vehicle here in Chicago."

Although many local businesses are losing money because of the ailing economy, Young says her business is growing. Even after adding a location in Lincoln Square in 2003, the business began to outgrow its Lincoln Park address, moving three years ago to a spacious location in the Merchandise Mart. 

According to Young, nearly 35,000 have taken classes at The Chopping Block in the last few years. She says health and economic concerns keep people coming in.

"We find that our business will grow in this kind of environment. For me, that's really rewarding because I think there's intrinsic value in what we do."

Dieticians agree that better cooking skills can lead to healthier eating habits.

Jennifer Vimbor is a registered dietician who runs her own private practice in Chicago, Nutrition Counseling services. She says there are a lot of health benefits to improving your cooking skills.

"You're more in control of what you eat when you're preparing it. Anything you can do to make cooking more enjoyable and learn practical skills that will help you prepare balanced meals will help you to be more healthy."

The Chopping Block offers classes for a range of cooking abilities - from those who don't know how to boil water to those who want an intensive course in various ethnic cuisines. Classes range in price from a $40 two-hour demonstration class to $175 for an all-day, hands-on class.

Student Courtney Cavaney of River North says she and her husband, Ed, enjoy taking new classes.

"You learn so much. This is a great place for beginners and advanced because you learn techniques you can use everyday," said Cavaney, who has taken two classes already and has signed up for several more.

In addition to classes, The Chopping Block hosts private parties, such as bridal showers or corporate gatherings, and also has a large selection of retail products and ingredients. They also offer classes and camps for children and teens.

In the future, Young hopes to expand the business' website, creating videos so people can learn cooking tips and techniques from their own home, in addition to expanding their classes and clientele. Most importantly, Young says, she wants to use what she knows to get Chicago cooking.

"We're not here to show people what kind of fantastic chefs we are. We're here to show people how to cook and that they can do this."

The Chopping Block has two locations, Suite 107 in the Merchandise Mart Plaza, and at 4747 North Lincoln in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.