LINCOLN PARK — A new Halsted Street storefront is on the simmer to begin teaching kids to cook.
Laura Ragano, a graduate of and former teacher at the French Pastry School Downtown, expects to open Oui Chef, 2622 N. Halsted St., in early March.
"I want the kids to come in here and feel like they're in a real kitchen," Ragano said. "They're going to be my little sous chefs."
To that end, Oui Chef has already been outfitted with real kitchen prep tables, only with shortened legs to accommodate junior cooks. It helped that, after about a year of looking for the right spot, Ragano found a former dog bakery that just happened to be near a handful of other child activity-based storefronts on the same stretch of Halsted.
"There's a cluster of us now," Ragano said.
The right spot followed her decision on the right vocation as she mulled a return to work when her now 6-year-old daughter went off to school. It's also walking distance from their Lakeview home.
"I just feel like it combines my worlds," Ragano said.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ragano went into restaurants and found herself doing pastries, but considered it unsatisfying.
"I was being taught a lot of bad habits, cutting corners," Ragano said.
So, being naturally drawn to the science and chemistry involved in baking, she enrolled at the French Pastry School, 226 W. Jackson Blvd., to learn it right. Upon graduation, she proved so adept she was offered a post as an assistant, then her own classrooms.
"I absolutely love teaching," Ragano said.
Ragano left the job in 2010 when her daughter was born, but was looking to get back into the field when she went off to school. A shop teaching kids to cook — which, unlike a restaurant position, would allow her evenings with her daughter — proved the perfect recipe.
Ragano said she intends to run 12- to 14-week classes, paid by the month, and divided by age groups from 1½ to 18 years.
"During the day for little ones, after school for older ones," she said. "Obviously, depending on how old they are we'll delve into things to various degrees."
They'll begin with basics, such as teaching tools of the trade.
"Each week, we'll highlight a tool," she said. "We'll talk about why we use that tool, why the tool looks like it does ... then make something based on that tool."
They'll do the same with ingredients.
"For instance, butter," Ragano said. "Why does this butter look yellow? Why does this butter look white?"
They'll add in taste tests. "Why is this butter $2.50 a pound? Why is this butter $8 a pound? What are the cows being fed? What is the content? I want kids to leave with an understanding of what's going on."
It's a natural for parents seeking afterschool activities for kids, but also for kids yet to go to school, with Ragano's one proviso being that those under 5 will need to be accompanied by a caregiver.
"I want the caregivers to have a good experience too," she added. "I want them to go away learning something."
She also plans a weekly lunch class in which students will make something and then eat it themselves, which might help with finicky eaters.
"I find that kids are much more willing to eat it if they've produced it, because they're proud of it," Ragano said. "They've got to try it, they made it."
Ragano also plans to leave time open on Saturdays for birthday parties, while Sundays will be off for now — reserved for her daughter.
On the internet, it's Oui Chef Chicago, she said, because "there are other Oui Chefs in the world, but none of them was a play off the word 'wee.'"
She'll also be welcoming field trips from schools, as well as summer camps come the end of the school year.
Prices are set at $128 a month for weekly 1 hour and 15 minute classes, $40 for a lunch class and $310 a week for three-hour weekday camp classes. And, she said, Oui Chef might expand classes as the business grows and she takes on staff.
"Eventually, I'd love to be able to open a second location," Ragano said. "But first things first."