At Bridgeport Village, Little Kitchen Academy (LKA) students prepare meals from start to finish: from preparing ingredients and handling kitchen appliances to setting the table and cleaning up, kids learn the basics and benefits of cooking with a hands-on approach. While teachers are close at hand as guides, the direction of a class can often be determined by the children themselves as they engage in activities like measuring and chopping. But for Paul Arnold, the director of Little Kitchen Academy Bridgeport, teaching kids to cook is secondary.
“We don’t make little chefs,” says Arnold. “We convey self-confidence and independence, which for Montessori comes from learning through play.”
The culinary school, which opened its doors on July 11, is the second US location for the Vancouver, BC-based franchise founded by entrepreneurs Felicity and Brian Curin. Felicity Curin spent much of her culinary career in catering, working with chains such as Earls and Cold Stone Creamery before graduating as a teacher from the Association Montessori Internationale. Her idea was to combine her two passions – Montessori teaching and culinary arts – with the first Little Kitchen Academy, which opened in 2019. The program has expanded rapidly in Canada, with seven locations in the country and eight more in the pipeline. The company is now targeting its southern neighbor with openings in Oregon, California and many other states in the coming months.
At Little Kitchen Academy Bridgeport, classes are offered in a variety of formats: A three-hour class once a week during the school year; Lessons for five consecutive days during school holidays; or “LKA Late Nights” sessions aimed at teenagers. Each class has three teachers and is limited to 10 students, allowing teachers to give each student plenty of individual attention. The instructors — half of whom have professional cooking experience while the other half have an educational background — encourage students to experiment and ask questions, including why things are done a certain way.
Similar to a professional kitchen, each student has a station equipped with a full-size oven, blender, induction burner, and cooking utensils. “It’s important to us that kids can go home and cook, so we wanted them to use the same appliances here that they have in their house,” says Arnold.
Following a Montessori principle that focuses on development, classes are divided into mixed-age groups – ages three to five, six to eight, nine to twelve and teenagers. The school teaches the same recipe (all meat-free and nut-free) to all students on any given day, with curriculum tailored to each developmental level.
To ensure returning students have a new experience each time they visit, recipes are never repeated. It’s all possible thanks to Little Kitchen Academy’s database of thousands of recipes, including dishes like Chocolate Zucchini Muffins, Kale Lentil Curry, Rainbow Spring Rolls and Peach Cucumber Salad. The school uses seasonal, organic, and locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, which is particularly important to Arnold, an industry veteran who is co-founder of nutrition-conscious Portland restaurants Bastion and now-defunct Joule. “I talk a lot about, ‘Why are we choosing to eat this food right now?'” says Arnold. “[It’s] more than taste. There are so many reasons: local economy, carbon footprint, seasonality.”
In addition to cooking skills, students learn about related topics such as growing your own food and food waste. At the entrance to the school is a hydroponic AeroGarden that allows students to learn about different plants and herbs and how to harvest them. “When kids prepare their own food, they are more open to trying different things, and when they grow it themselves, even more so,” says Michael Silver, part of the Bridgeport site opening team.
During the last half hour of class, students set the communal table and sit down to eat what they cooked and talk about everything they like and dislike about food, down to whatever topic the kids come up with direct the conversation. It is a simple yet powerful ritual that LKA sees as vital to the school’s mission. “I grew up around my parents’ kitchen table,” says Arnold. “To get that moment to sit at the table and meet each other… I love it. I feel like some of the kids have never done it, so it’s important that we do it.”
Little Kitchen Academy is open at 7443 SW Bridgeport Road.
Correction: August 11, 2022 4:11 pm Corrected this article to show that Little Kitchen Academy Bridgeport is the franchise’s second location to open in the United States