Editor’s Note: Nine months ago, Larry Frazer left his executive catering chef position at Princeton University to become Culinary Arts instructor at Eden Institute. His first installment described the difficulty of his decision and in the second one, we met his students. Now we find out how exactly a chef prepares a curriculum for autistic youth that completely excludes speaking.
When we last visited the wonderful world of Eden, I left off writing “What was I thinking? These kids can do anything if you give them a chance!” Serious understatement.
It is now the end of the first trimester, and I have some rewinding and fast forwarding to do. Flashback to summertime, when I lay the groundwork for what my students would study all year.
The summer passed very quickly. Most of the older students were in camp so I ran baking workshops with the younger students and worked on my class curriculum.
I wrote 21 different cooking programs for my class, which is my core curriculum for the year. Most of the programs revolve around basic skills like peeling, slicing and dicing. That’s where every chef starts. My first job involved peeling and slicing 50 pounds of onions and 50 pounds of carrots every day. You get really proficient at it.
Details Matter…A Lot
For my autistic students, the programs have to include the smallest minutia so that they can be easily followed and remembered. The process is called task analysis. For instance, the hand washing program’s first step is: “walk to sink;” step 2 is: “turn on water;” step 3 is: “get soap” etc. You can see what I mean.
Another amazing part of our teaching process is that we teach in utter silence. Many of our students cannot process auditory stimulus so everyone sounds like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon…Wah wah wah wah wah. Eden has solved that problem by teaching silently, relying on physical and gestural prompts. A student must perform a step of a program three times with zero prompts before he can move on to the next step. It is a tedious and long process but it really works.
Many of our students cannot process auditory stimulus so everyone sounds like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon…Wah wah wah wah wah.
As I was writing the programs I had this nagging fear that they would not work. What was I going to do then? With some well received advice from my mentor Courtney, which went something like “if they don’t work we can fix them,” I plodded along until I thought I had enough programs for an entire year, if not longer. I couldn’t wait until September to see if they worked.
Wearing Their Whites
Fast forward to September. Bearing in mind that change is difficult for all of us, but for someone with autism it is downright terrifying, I knew that the best way to run my class was to reenact what goes on in a commercial kitchen. That way when they did actually start to work in one it would seem familiar.
The first thing I wanted them to do was put on a uniform. I purchased aprons for all 12 of my students and I had their names embroidered on each. I bought some paper chef toques with the vision of my students parading through the school daily, proudly wearing their chef’s whites.
The first day of school came and I woke up as nervous as I ever was for a formal black-tie event at Princeton. I wasn’t even sure that they would even wear the uniforms let alone be able to follow the programs that I wrote. Let’s not forget that they would all be using very sharp chef knives–yeow!
I came into school with aprons and hats in hand praying that everything was going to go alright. As each student came into the kitchen I handed him an apron and hat and I took photos of each one. You could see the pride in their expression and some of the poses they struck were hilarious.
If I could brag for a moment here, the uniform idea was brilliant. The students loved them! It gave them a true sense of pride and made them stand out within the school as someone special. I even unearthed an old medal of mine, which I give out weekly to the “Chef of the Week” for mastering a program or really trying hard. Again, it is a wonderful self-esteem builder.
The next step in the process was to do a baseline for each student to see where they would start with each program. This was a bit long and tedious in itself but I had gathered photos of most of the vegetables and proteins that they would be working with so the first step of retrieval (i.e. retrieve onion) was a lot easier.
The first program that they had to master was washing their hands and setting up their work station (towel, cutting board & knife) which is always the first thing you do once you are in the kitchen. The good news was that we had a very good start and the students were definitely psyched for this new learning experience. I can’t begin to describe how relieved I felt.
The next couple of months went by in a flash. I can’t wait to tell everyone how truly remarkable my “F” TROUPE (Trying Really Opens Up Potential Employment) really is.
Still, no time to rest on any laurels or basil sprigs. I will return with some amazing success stories, a great hors d’oeuvre party rehash and some really funny stories. Stay tuned.