Editor’s Note: Six months ago, Larry Frazer left his executive catering chef position at Princeton University to become Culinary Arts instructor at Eden Institute. His first account described the difficulty of his decision and now, a few months into the school year, we meet his students.
“Oh my God! What have I gotten myself into? These kids are seriously handicapped. Did I make the right decision coming here? I don’t know yet; only time will tell.”
“OK, I love it now! I have memorized all of the kids’ names and I say hi to each of them every morning in order to establish some sort of rapport.”
These were the first two entries in the journal I began when I started at Eden Institute, a school in Princeton, New Jersey for autistic children. I thought that I was prepared, having worked with Eden at their summer camp for more than eight years. I always thought the kids at camp were the ones with the most severe behavioral issues. As it turns out the exact opposite is true. So as I sat there and watched my students come into class with the same behaviors and inability to vocalize as they had at camp I sort of freaked out. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that it was going to be a challenge but it kind of put a damper on my naïve vision of what I would immediately achieve when I started teaching at Eden.
I had this vision of having a savant chef sitting at his desk, just waiting to be released into the culinary world. All it would take would be a little time, a knife and some direction and he would leap into a 3-star restaurant as the first autistic Iron Chef. What was I thinking? We don’t even have desks!
So now what was I going to do? I truthfully have not discarded my original dream but the timeline has changed and it’s going take a lot more direction. I first had to figure out how I was going to go about teaching these kids. As I started my training in the Eden methodology of teaching I found out that a lot was already figured out. They use a teaching method called ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), which incorporates a lot of repetition and data collection. Again, after six months I am seeing how effective this method really is. I just needed to figure out how to incorporate it into something remotely resembling a culinary arts program.
Start with Life Skills
Since Eden already had a mandatory Life Skills program in which students prepared lunch for the entire class, I decided to use this as a jumping off place. I spent the first month working with the students and observing their skill levels. They already had a menu, which was primarily sandwich making. They also did things like make green salads, powdered juices and set tables. These are all basics of a life skills program. I knew that I wanted to step that up to prepared hot meals in order to see which skill sets I could work on in the future.
Mastering the Menu
I developed the next month’s menu to include six skill sets: working with pizza dough, grilling, pasta salad making, sautéing, wrap sandwiches and hand fabrication (fish cakes, hamburgers etc.) These are all highly sought after skills in the foodservice world.
The immediate reaction to the new menu was great. The students and staff were really tired of just sandwiches so items like grilled chicken with sautéed mushrooms and Chef Larry’s soups were a big hit. I don’t even have to say how popular the fresh made pizzas were.
So how did my students do? Let me tell you about Matt. It was the first week of the new menu. I knew from observation that two students (Kevin and Matt) in this one particular group were going to be strong. I set up the mis en place for wrap making and had Matt watch me make one, cut it in half, and put it on a tray for service. While I was doing this I had Kevin peeling a carrot, which I thought was simple enough. I turned around to see Kevin with a huge grin and a carrot the size of a toothpick. (Lesson learned….explain more and assume less.) I ran over to him to try to explain that all of the carrot should not be going into the garbage. Meanwhile Matt, without any prompting, managed to make six wraps, cut them in half and placed them neatly on the platter.
Now any chef who has tried to teach the envelope fold to their employees knows that it is not the easiest thing. I asked his TA if she had helped him and she had not! It turns out that Matt has total recalland only has to be shown anything once and he is able to repeat it.
You can’t imagine how proud and happy I was in that kitchen that day. It was better than any formal dinner I had prepared for heads of state. I saw a light at the end of a tunnel through which I was not absolutely sure I would be able to successfully travel. It was the start of a string of many breakthroughs that I have had with my students. It was the beginning of a new era at Eden.
Coming next….What was I thinking? These kids can do anything if you give them a chance!