Chaotic culinary and arts education

By Trevor Ballanger

Kids have been told not to play with their food since before the dinner table was invented. Now kids of all ages have the opportunity to create their art and eat it too.

At Constructive Chaos, a soon-to-open youth center in River Forest, Ill., students will be offered classes on the art of cooking and creativity. Co-owners Kris Nelson and her daughter, Ashley Nelson, began developing plans for the workshop three years ago. It will combine courses in both the culinary and fine arts for kids in kindergarten through high school.

The inspiration to open the center came at separate times for the mother/daughter team. Ashley, 23, said she took to cooking when she was in elementary school and started making dishes for her family. She later graduated from Boston University with a degree in hospitality administration with a concentration in culinary arts.

She said after working all of the stations in a restaurant, she decided the industry wasn’t for her but wanted to continue using her degree. She found a job at her alma mater as an assistant for an introductory cooking course.

“I loved teaching people how to cook,” she said. “So I was like, ‘All right, this is what I’m going to do.’ That’s how the culinary aspect of the business came into play.”

She said designing the kitchen for the center from scratch enabled her to create an environment safe for 5-year-olds while teaching kids the value of responsibility. Much of the prep work will be done for them, but students will be able to determine what goes into their food and when it should be done cooking. Students will utilize knives and other utensils depending on age and skill level.

“I think if you give kids responsibility, [you] give the opportunity to create something that truly is theirs,” Ashley said.

Kris, 45, has volunteered in the public school system for more than 20 years and taught supplemental arts in her free time as a stay-at-home mom. She said she wanted to open an art studio for many years and had several ideas for how she wanted to turn it into a business but didn’t know the ins and outs of owning one.

In order to better run a company, she went back to school and earned her degree from Kendall College Chicago in December 2011. She got an early start outlining the success for Constructive Chaos by creating business plans and marketing strategies as part of her classes.

Ashley and Kris combined their ideas to make a unique learning institution for children. Attendees will have the option of taking both art and culinary classes or choosing just one. Each has been designed with its own curriculum but correlates themes appropriate for different age groups.

Culinary classes will cover foods from African, European and Asian countries and planting herb and produce gardens. Students will learn the basics of kitchen techniques like fundamental knife skills. Art classes will offer historical lessons, profiles on famous artists and other projects including creating murals and recycled art.

The center hopes to provide an education that will also benefit children in other areas like math and history as well. Since funding for art classes has been cut from many schools, Constructive Chaos designed a curriculum based on different themes like historical events and foreign countries.

Lisa Garner, an assistant at the center, said public school teachers are trying to raise scores on standardized tests, so money is going to areas other than the arts. She said students are taught to think a certain way and not necessarily outside of the box.

“The culinary arts and arts in generalare being lost,”Ashley said. “It’s being taken out of the schools. I think it’s a shame to watch, and that’s what we’re trying to supplement over here.”

Ashley said she’s expecting to cater primarily to students in elementary school or younger, but hopes to see more mature students. She and her mother have speaking with various high schools and colleges about sending older kids to the center. According to Garner, the problem is getting teenagers to want to participate because they’re already accustomed to doing things on their own.

Kris said it would be beneficial for teens to participate in the program by helping teach younger students, and added it would be a good resume builder.

“I’m really hoping it catches on with that age group,” Garner said. “It’s a place to hang out. It’s a place where they can have a lot of ingenuity and free reign and work on their portfolios.”

Constructive Chaos is set to open March 5 and plans to host 35 students. Classes will occur year-round with a summer camp program in place. Prices will vary depending on age and course because it is not a tuition-based program.

“When you’ve not done something before, it makes it harder,” Kris said. “You tend to do everything the hard way because you don’t know the right way.”