At Bridgeport Village, students at Little Kitchen Academy (LKA) create dishes from start to finish: From prepping ingredients and handling kitchen equipment to setting the table and cleaning up, kids learn the basics and benefits of cooking with a hands-on approach. While instructors are nearby as guiding figures, the direction a class takes can often be shaped by the kids themselves, as they engage in activities like measuring and chopping. But for Paul Arnold, the director of Little Kitchen Academy Bridgeport, teaching kids how to cook is secondary to the true goal.
“We’re not making little chefs,” Arnold says. “We’re teaching confidence and independence, which for Montessori comes from learning through play.”
The cooking school, which opened its doors on July 11, is the second U.S. location of the Vancouver, B.C.-based franchise founded by entrepreneurs Felicity and Brian Curin. Felicity Curin spent much of her culinary career catering and working with chains like Earls and Cold Stone Creamery, before getting her Association Montessori Internationale teaching degree. It was her idea to combine her two passions — Montessori teaching and the culinary arts — with the first Little Kitchen Academy, which opened in 2019. The program has expanded rapidly in Canada, with seven locations open in the country and eight more on the way. The company has now set its sights on its southern neighbor, opening locations in Oregon, California, and many more states in the coming months.
At Little Kitchen Academy Bridgeport, classes are available in different formats: A three-hour, once-a-week class during the school year; classes over five consecutive days scheduled during school breaks; or “LKA Late Nights” sessions geared toward teenagers. Each class has three instructors and is capped at 10 students, which enables instructors to give each student plenty of individual attention. The instructors — half of which have professional cooking experience while the other half have a background in education — 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-sized oven, mixer, induction burner, and cooking utensils. “It’s important to us that kids are able to go home and cook, so we wanted them to use the same equipment here that they have in their house,” Arnold says.
Following a Montessori principle which focuses on development, classes are split into mixed-age groups — ages three to five, six to eight, nine to twelve, and teen. The school instructs the same recipe (all of which are meat- and nut-free) to all students on a given day, with curriculums tailored towards each developmental stage.
To ensure returning students get a new experience upon every visit, recipes are never repeated. It’s all possible through Little Kitchen Academy’s database of thousands of recipes, which include dishes like chocolate zucchini muffins, kale and lentil curry, rainbow spring rolls, and peach cucumber salad. The school uses in-season, organic, and locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, which is especially important to Arnold, an industry vet who co-founded the nutritionally minded Portland restaurants Bastion and the now-shuttered Joule. “I talk a lot about, ‘Why are we choosing to eat this food right now?’” Arnold says. “[It’s] more than just flavor. There’s so many reasons: the local economy, carbon footprint, seasonality.”
In addition to cooking skills, students learn about related topics, like growing your own food and food waste. The school’s entryway features a hydroponic AeroGarden, which allows students to learn about different plants and herbs, as well as how to harvest them. “When kids are making their own foods, they’re more open to trying different things, and when they’re growing them, even more so,” says Michael Silver, who is part of the Bridgeport location’s opening team.
During the last half-hour of class, students set the community table and sit down to eat what they’ve cooked, talking through anything from what they like or dislike about the food to any random topic the kids steer the conversation toward. It’s a simple but impactful ritual that LKA sees as crucially important to the school’s mission. “I grew up at my parents’ kitchen table,” Arnold says. “Getting that moment to sit and connect at the table... I love it. I feel like some of the kids have never done it, so it’s important for us to do.”
Little Kitchen Academy is open at 7443 SW Bridgeport Road.
Correction: August 11, 2022, 4:11 p.m. This article was corrected to show that Little Kitchen Academy Bridgeport is the franchise’s second location to open in the U.S.