'Warrior chefs' the secret behind Knockout Catering

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The shared kitchen at Sugar Beet Schoolhouse in River Forest was alive with collaboration and experimentation on a recent summer afternoon. As the smell of grilling beef wafted through the space Joe Hart, culinary director and head chef of Knockout Catering, gathered a small cadre of eager cooks to assess their latest burger creation. 

Hart and his team of "warrior chefs" and "job coaches" were busy perfecting the offering they plan to serve up at the 12th Annual Oak Park Micro Brew Review on Aug. 17.

I popped by for a visit just as the crew started assessing their Korean-inspired smash burgers made from custom blend of ground beef short rib and chuck. They examine thoughtfully formed double patties piled onto soft buns and topped with a spicy gochujang-cheese sauce, signature Knockout Sauce and Knockout Pickle slices. Despite the duo of sauces, the group discusses if the burgers need an extra slice of cheese or more seasoning. 

"No more cheese," Warrior Chef Jackie Finn said, confidently, "I think we have enough."

"But you don't like cheese, Jackie," says Hart with a laugh. "What do you think, Charlie?"

"I love this spicy cheese," says Warrior Chef Charlie O'Conner proudly.

They chat about the robust and colorful coleslaw, featuring kale, cabbage and carrots grown locally at the OK Farm in River Forest, they'll offer as an optional side dish. Vats of slaw aside, the Knockout Catering crew will make 1,000 full-sized burgers for the Micro Brew Review. 

With eight warrior chefs and five job coaches it's a big undertaking for the relatively small kitchen team, but and they'll have all hands-on-deck to get the job done.

"Our secret ingredients are warrior power and love," says Aniki Coates, OK Farm coordinator and Knockout Catering job coach. "Everyone is learning and growing when we are in the kitchen together and we all have appreciation for our shared experience."

Hart is currently finishing a culinary program at the College of DuPage to stay one step ahead of his passionate warrior chefs. His background in special education makes a daily difference in the lives of the warrior chefs, who demonstrate perseverance and strength every day. 

Knockout Catering, established in 2016, is a social enterprise program maintained by Opportunity Knocks, a River Forest nonprofit, designed to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (known as "warriors") as they live and work in our community. 

In addition to their catering arm, Opportunity Knocks also maintains the Knockout Pickle business and oversees OK Farm. All three initiatives aim to sustain purposeful skill-building opportunities and jobs for warriors while producing a revenue stream to support the organization.

The OK Farm provides warriors with a "seed to jar" experience as they plant 36 unique crops annually and harvest mountains of dill and hundreds of pounds of cucumbers for use in their Knockout Pickle production. 

Warriors transform the harvest into artisanal refrigerator pickles in three varieties: classic, deli and spicy. While Opportunity Knocks took 1,900 pounds of Knockout pickles to market last year, the pucker-worthy slices also make frequent appearances on the Knockout Catering menu. 

They serve as a signature garnish on everything from cold Cuban sandwiches to maple-smoked pulled pork sandwiches with creamy coleslaw.

"The bulk of our business has been done by word of mouth to this point," said Hart, "but we are ready to form more partnerships and grow the business now."

The warrior chefs of Knockout Catering work at block parties and private events serving large groups or intimate dinner parties. In 2018, the crew provided food and service at 40 events and served 2,380 guests. 

Menus have included casual fare like build-your-own burger and hot dog bars as well as fancier entrees like smoked duck with fig reduction.

 Knockout Catering enjoys a strong relationship with Happy Apple Pie Shop in Oak Park. The quaint pie shops sells Knockout Pickles, and the catering crew often recommends their clients purchase Happy Apple pies to accompany their catered meals.  

The warrior chefs also partner with Kinslahger Brewing in Oak Park to provide pickles and pickled eggs for their tasting room snack menu and have also done pop-up events at the small brewery.

"We're big fans of Opportunity Knocks," says Keith Huizinga of Kinslahger. "The combination of a mission we support, great people and top-quality products makes its very easy for us to work with them."

The Knockout Catering team cultivates an environment encouraging interdependence and allows the warrior chefs to showcase their culinary abilities in our community. Their skills will be on full display at the Oak Park Micro Brew Review on North Marion Street in downtown Oak Park on Aug. 17. Just seven dollars will get you one of their house-made Korean Smash Burgers.

Tickets to the event are available at bit.ly/2YnPm8w.

*Opportunity Knocks is always looking for warrior chefs to join their team. Interested parties are urged to apply online and should expect to take an introductory training class prior to getting busy in the kitchen.

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