The Chopping Block


Over 15 years of teaching Chicagoans how to cook, this niche business still offers new and innovative lessons in 2013.

When Shelley Young, founder/CEO, The Chopping Block, opened her niche business in the Merchandise Mart in 1997, she wanted “to inspire the country to cook.”

Each month The Chopping Block offers a variety of cooking classes, from Chicken 101 to Sushi Workshop and beyond. While taking these classes, students may observe demonstrations or participate in hands-on experiences. “You definitely learn a lot more from a demonstration class,” shares Ms. Young. “Not that you don’t learn doing things hands-on, because you do. But say you’re chopping up vegetables for a soup. Don’t you want to see how the chef does it and observe the technique? You can watch, take notes and really learn why the chef is doing what he or she is doing.”

Add a second location in Lincoln Square and over 15 years of providing cooking lessons, and Ms. Young’s vision of getting the country to cook has really come to life. While majority of students are from Chicago, people from all over the U.S. visit The Chopping Block to improve their cooking skills and learn from one of the 19 chefs. “The students come from all walks of life – couples, families, groups, restaurateurs – there really isn’t a typical student,” Ms. Young notes. “People come in to have fun and learn; if anything, I hope they take those lessons home and use them again and again. I’d hate to think someone goes home with a recipe and just puts it on the shelf. So if people are going home and cooking with the knowledge they’ve gained at The Chopping Block, we’ve done our job.”

But we all know that running a successful business doesn’t come easy. “I love Chicago, but it’s a tough place to run a business like ours,” she admits. “There’s nothing like us around, so it’s difficult at times to do what we want to do, like obtain the liquor license. There are constant challenges, and we have to fight tooth and nail to get what we want, but we’re pretty good at that.”

Fighting for a liquor license has paid off, as The Chopping Block Wine Academy, established January 2012, has seen a successful year. “Our wine director, Diana Hamann, created this great program, and it’s going to be a little different this year,” explains Ms. Young. “Diana is opening her own wine store in Evanston, so we’re in the process of hiring additional instructors. You’ll see a lot of different things this year in both in the Wine Academy and in cooking classes — more about technique.”

And one technical class people look forward to is Culinary Boot Camp, an intense five-day cooking class that meets Monday-Friday, 9-5pm. The cost is $1,750, which covers instruction and all materials and ingredients to be used in class. Tools and aprons are provided, as well. “January is always a time when people make resolutions to cook at home more, so we offer a lot of technique-based classes, and Culinary Boot Camp is truly amazing,” says Ms. Young. “You learn a lot in those five days – all you need to know about cooking. And if you’re thinking of going to culinary school, this course will help you see if it’s what you realty want to do.”

Ms. Young also wants to make The Chopping Block an experience for her 75 employees. “I’ve always wanted this place to be a company where my employees feel they have the best job ever,” explains the CEO, who relies on behavioral questioning to find formidable staff members. “We’re constantly evaluating the behavior of potential employees, because we want to see what drives their success. Some people are more detail-oriented, some are more outgoing. We want to capitalize on their strengths to continue to make The Chopping Block a great place for everyone from the staff to the students. And I think we’ve done a good job.”


About Carrie Williams

Carrie Williams is TCW's managing/digital editor. She manages day-to-day editorial operations of the monthly print publication, website and social media outlets, contributes to a variety of feature articles and directs a team of interns, freelance writers and bloggers. In early 2013, she led the redesign of of TCW's brand strategy. Her blog, "Carrie On," is a blog of reflection and discovery, discussing how to push through life when you’re handed one too many curveballs. And finally, Ms. Williams is also executive director of the TCW Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit supporting underfunded women's and children's organizations.