Cooking school Schoolhouse Kitchen + Studio is enjoying a final season in its home at the River Forest Commercial Kitchen. Their lease is up in January, but they aren’t closing up shop. 

When the school’s building went up for sale, owner Cheryl Knecht had to make a tough decision. She came to the realization that her plans and dreams didn’t fit with the pressures of owning real estate. Someone else purchased the building and they won’t be leasing to businesses like hers. Though she is leaving the space, she is confident about her business’ future. 

“It’s just how the cookie crumbles. I hadn’t planned on this at all,” Knecht said.

Schoolhouse Kitchen + Studio recently expanded, opening locations in Portage Park in January 2023 and in Wicker Park in June. All locations of Schoolhouse offer a variety of activities, including 4-day kids camps. Current ones include Bake Shop, which focuses on a different baked item each day: bread, cookies, pies, and cakes. Students learn about measuring and mixing but it’s the things that don’t get communicated in a written recipe, like how pie dough should feel, that matter.

“It can be really frustrating, especially for a child if you don’t understand the mechanics of it, right? We’re there to show them that and kind of course correct as they’re handling their ingredients and to make sure that they’re going to be successful,” Knecht said.

Another camp is Passport for Cooking that features a different savory item from around the world. The goal is to encourage kids to try new flavors. By owning the process, Knecht said she believes children are more likely to take a risk. 

“They’ve made it themselves. The mystery is taken out of the ingredients by handling them and tasting along the way. And there’s the beautiful thing of peer pressure, which works in our favor. When one kid in the class is willing to take a bite, the rest of them usually will try it too.”

Schoolhouse also offers afterschool programs, in-school projects, field trips to their kitchens, and even Girl Scout cooking badge workshops. Because of the varied nature of cooking, they can set up anywhere. They have even cooked on camp stoves in school gardens. Birthday parties at Schoolhouse have been a hit since they opened, Knecht said.

The original idea for Schoolhouse Kitchen came out of Knecht’s involvement with opening the Sugar Beet Food Co-op grocery store in Oak Park. Her devotion to high-quality, locally sourced food combined with the social nature of cooking gave Knecht the idea for the school. 

“It’s really difficult to get people to engage sometimes. Everyone is so distracted by phones and school, and work and all that stuff. And I really feel like maybe the last bastion of family time is cooking together and eating together. I’m just really passionate about making sure kids and their families value that.”

Schoolhouse is a safe place for exploring food says Knecht, “Yesterday I was teaching a group of students, and we had lots of extra cilantro leftover from our recipe. And these little guys were pounding it in a mortar and pestle, just playing, seeing what it can do. I feel like it really builds confidence. It gives them creative license.” 

When Schoolhouse wasn’t in session, Knecht had also been managing other tenants using the commercial kitchen space. During her eight-year tenure, the kitchen served as an incubator for food business just getting off the ground and for local producers who don’t want to invest in their own commercial kitchens. 

“It’s a very expensive space to both build out and maintain. But the Schoolhouse, which is really my business doesn’t require all of that.” That was the principal reason she opted not to buy the building.

The River Forest Commercial Kitchen is not going to be available to those entrepreneurs either after January, but plans are afoot to recreate the space elsewhere. One tenant intends to build a commercial kitchen to accommodate those who will be uprooted. More specific details will be forthcoming when the ink dries on a deal for a new location. 

As for Schoolhouse Kitchen + Studio, Knecht is already looking to return to a physical location in the immediate area. “We’re just looking for the perfect spot. We absolutely love working in this community. We have so many great connections here.”

In January, a celebration at the River Forest location will include an open house and party. 

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