WO M AN
FRESH SPRING IDEAS
The Chopping Block’s Shelley Young
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An Innovative Entrepreneur Utilizes A Traditional Concept To Dish Up Success
By Rachel Clayton | Photography by Jeremy Lawson
fter being in the kitchen all day you’d
think Shelley Young, founder and
owner of Chicago’s acclaimed The
Chopping Block cooking school
and retail store, would want to
come home and do anything but
cook. On the contrary, after
eight hours showing students
how to make everything from
sushi to ceviche, Shelley, 40, would rather chop, dice
and sauté than hit up a hot new restaurant. More
impressive, Shelley claims she’s never made the same
dish for dinner twice. (Except, she admits, for apple
Shelley opened the rst brightly colored, one-of-
a-kind Chopping Block in Lincoln Park 10 years
ago (and later relocated to the current Merchandise
Mart address), and saw such a huge response that
she opened a second location in Lincoln Square in
2003. Since, Shelley’s seen a slew of copycat schools
pop up in the suburbs and downtown. But none do
more business than Shelley. Between the two wildly
successful locations, the gourmet dynamo oversees
ve classrooms, between 250 and 300 classes and
events a month (the Mart location can seat up to
100 people), two gourmet retail stores (where she
hand-selects every product), and an active database
of 30,000 students. Her soon-to-be re-launched Web
site will offer online courses and merchandise—and
she’s publishing a cookbook. It’s clear Shelley has
quite, ahem, a lot on her plate.
And she plans to keep coming back for seconds…
Before we get to your career, tell us about your childhood.
I grew up in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on a small acreage until I
was seven years old. I’m the youngest child of four, and
my older siblings didn’t really want to play with me, so
I pretty much grew up on that acreage by myself. It was
in an era where I could just roam, and that really fostered
my sense of imagination. Those are some of my fondest
memories, it was just fantastic; and we spent lots of time
together as a family.
What was that like? We were pretty poor, so we basically
grew everything that we ate. Then, we’d have to prepare
it, and can it, and freeze it to have food for the wintertime.
All the kids had to be an active part of the household. My
mom needed me to help her in her chores, in the kitchen
and cleaning the house from the time I was really little. And
I enjoyed that. I liked feeling like a productive, important
person when I was ve years old.
Who was your greatest role model? Certainly my mom.
There are two things about my mother I admire. Number
one, she doesn’t worry a lot about things. She never worried
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if I was going to get to school OK or if I was
going to be warm enough. She was concerned,
don’t get me wrong, and made sure I was taken
care of—but she never worries about things that
she can’t help. Sometimes people might think I’m Balance is something
on the callous side because I don’t worry either.
But I just think not worrying is a great way to that everybody talks
live your life.
The other thing is, my mom has an uncanny about nowadays and
sense of knowing how to prioritize family, her
home and her work—all the different facets of
I think it’s a complete
her life—much better than myself. I think I’ve
gotten some of that, but I wish I could’ve gotten
illusion. I don’t think
a little bit more because I think I prioritize work balance is possible, and
a whole lot.
once you know it’s not
Did she teach you how to cook? When I was
young, I would watch my mother. I’d help her possible, it really frees
out, snap the beans or pit cherries, grease pans,
or clean carrots, or things like that, but I didn’t your mind.”
really get to cook. I wanted to, and kept saying,
‘Will you teach me how to cook, will you teach
me how to cook?’ And they all just kept replying,
‘Grease the pan, clean the carrots!’
So I remember one day, when I was 9 years
weren’t interested, so I negotiated the lease and How do you balance it all? I don’t! I don’t try to
old, I asked my sister if she could show me how
created The Chopping Block. balance it. Balance is something that everybody
to make brownies. And she said, ‘Maybe later.’
talks about nowadays and I think it’s a complete
And I thought, ‘Well forget it, I’m tired of this,
Did anyone ever doubt the idea would work? illusion. I don’t think balance is possible, and
I’m going to gure out how to do it.’ She’s like,
No…but I don’t think I ever asked anybody! once you know it’s not possible, it really frees
‘You can’t do that, you don’t even know how to
[Laughs] your mind. Instead, it’s about prioritizing—at
measure anything.’ Well, of course that’s all it
periods of times I have to prioritize work, other
took and I was in the kitchen making brownies
Were you surprised at your success? Yes! The periods of times I have to prioritize my family or
and thinking, ‘This is really simple.’ That was the
demand for classes took off right away, and I have my health, or exercise. Your energy—how you
rst thing I ever made on my own.
to say, I think that came from me personally. I have feel about yourself—is what’s important. !
How did it feel? I remember the amazing an amazing group of instructors now, but at the
satisfaction I got when people ate them. I liked beginning, I taught all the classes, and I formed an Shelley’s Stats
the creative aspect of it, but more, I liked that it amazing relationship with my customers. I think Born
made people happy. And that’s really what got they saw the joy that I had for what I did, and I’ve Fort Dodge, Iowa, 1967
me cooking and in the kitchen—just making always been very humble. I’m not there to show Education
people happy. That’s still what I love about it you what a great cook I am, I’m trying to show Culinary Arts degree from Des Moines Area Community College.
today. Helping someone make something they you that you can do this too.
otherwise couldn’t or showing them how to do Julia Childs.
it…people just seem to light up when they cook How have you dealt with the increase in
or when they’re around food. competition? There’s a lot of competition that’s
Cheeseburgers. I try to have one at least once a week.
popped up in the suburbs, and de nitely some
Did you always want to open a cooking school? in the city too. But I guess, to me, that’s a great Best kitchen tool
It’s kind of an unconventional story; I never form of attery, right? I encourage and love to A ten-inch knife, because that’s really the foundation of cooking.
had any sort of grand plan. Basically, I moved see other schools because I can’t teach everyone Favorite person to cook for
to Chicago [after spending six years working in to cook! Plus, competition keeps us on our toes; My partner. She’s the most fun person to cook for because …she
the San Diego restaurant business] to work as a it gives me a challenge to always strive to be likes everything! So I don’t have to hold back, I can do whatever I
private chef. While I was interviewing, I took a better in my offerings. We’re always ahead of the want every night and she’ll love it.
job at a restaurant to make a little extra money pack in terms of giving people something new, Surprising fact
and meet people, and I ended up becoming head something fresh. Night Skills is our most popular I don’t really like to go out to eat. I enjoy restaurants but I would
chef there. While I was working both full-time class, but if all we did were Night Skills classes always prefer to cook.
jobs, I was trying to get my parents to open up that would get really old really quickly.
an antique store in Chicago because they had
Reading; painting and drawing; hiking and cycling.
an antique business that wasn’t doing so well So what’s next? Any thoughts on a third location?
in my little town in Iowa. They weren’t at all That’s a good question! We’re going to create In my next life I’ll be
interested, but I started looking at properties a strategic plan for the future because I don’t A rock star! Or a rock star/artist. Because I think if you’re a rock star
in my spare time anyway and ended up nding really have one right now. Then, we’ll work you can do art and people will just buy it whether it’s good or not.
the original location of The Chopping Block, on on expanding the business without expanding You can pretty much do rock star-slash-anything these days.
Webster Avenue—I loved it. I thought, “What a locations. Perhaps we’ll add locations later, but Personal mantra
great building, good foot traf c, good visibility, the big thing right now is our cookbook and I’m You don’t ask, you don’t get. I’m of the mindset that people want
I’ve got to do something here.’ My parents still also doing a complete revamp of the Web site. to help you, all you have to do is ask. !
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