Editor’s Note: In our last installment of A Chef’s Diary, Larry was encouraged by the progress of his culinary protegees at the Eden Institute, a school for autistic children and adults in Princeton, New Jersey. This week, he reveals a huge turning point for two of his students.
Seven months ago I asked myself if I could pull off creating a culinary program for young adults with autism. Ultimately I decided that “Yes I can!” Now it has become apparent that “yes I am” pulling it off with flying colors…or should I say flying vegetables? My students have taken to this course like a duck breast takes to a rosemary demi glace. As was expected, some of my students are faster learners than others but the remarkable thing is they are ALL learning.
When I was first given my class roster I looked at it and said “you’ve got to be kidding–so-and-so will not be able to do this or that.” Boy was I wrong. Every one of my students has mastered at least one of the programs, a pretty amazing feat. In fact, I have one group of three students (my “A” team) who had an entire year’s worth of programs mastered in the first trimester. Now that’s truly amazing!!!
But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine two of my students getting offered internships after just one semester.
Flashback to Back-to-School
Before I get to that, though, we need to take ride in Mr. Peabody’s WA BAC Machine (younger readers Google “Rocky & Bullwinkle”) to see what’s been happening in the Eden kitchen. I have to mention my first “Back to School Night.” No better way to show off the program than to have my culinary class prepare what would be offered in their classroom for their own parents.
I made none of the food–just made up a menu and they did the cooking. The menu included Grilled Fruit Brochettes, Dilled Chicken Mousse in Puff Pastry, the classic cucumber slice with Crème Fraiche and TiTi Shrimp, miniature Beef Wellingtons and a Curried Chicken Salad served in an Asian spoon.
It was a huge success. The parents loved it and the best part was that many of them were unaware of the new culinary program. The idea of a possible new employment opportunity for their children was a very big and happy surprise for them.
The idea of a possible new employment opportunity for their children was a very big and happy surprise for them.
The next big day for my program was the ground breaking for our new school building. All of the parents and donors were invited, along with myriad of local politicos and Princeton aristocracy. Another great opportunity to show off my program. Since it would have been a mobile catering issue we had the local Westin set up tables with a continental breakfast.
I brought four of my students over to the event in their aprons and toques and had them serve the guests. It made for a great visual and also served as an opportunity to see how long they could remain on task without wanting to escape. As with everything else they did great. They stood behind the line serving for almost an hour.
Be Careful What You Ask For
Something pretty funny happened that day. One of the guests approached the student I was working with and asked for a pastry. I said to my student “That looks like a good one. Grab that one.” And he proceeded to grab it and gobble it down.
I have since learned how literal my students are. Being one of the parents, the guest just laughed and asked for another.
Back to the Big News
Just before Christmas I went to my best friend Dennis’ private dining club at Princeton University to ask him if one or two of my students could start an internship at his club. He said “Of course!” and noted that it would be a good experience for his staff as well.
I chose the private dining club rather than a restaurant because the kitchen is a little smaller with fewer people working and definitely less chaos. Chaos is not a good thing for a young autistic apprentice. I chose Kevin and Scott to be the first interns because of their advanced skills, work ethic and lack of serious maladaptive behaviors.
Kevin started first and Scott is still waiting for transportation approval. Kevin began working in the middle of February and I have to say that I was probably more nervous than he was. Like everything else related to this program I had no idea how it would work out and like everything else it went extremely well. New things often confuse an autistic student but Kevin was immediately at ease in the new situation.
We walked in, took off our coats and put on our aprons and jumped right into work. When Greg the club chef brought out a 25-pound bag of carrots and dropped them on the prep table I thought Kevin’s eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. I don’t think he ever saw that many carrots before. He immediately said “Am I finished?” to which I answered “No, we’ll be finished when that bag is empty.”
I wisely set up a reinforcer (purple ice pop) and left it at school so that he would have something to work for but not receive right away. That really worked. The carrots had to be trimmed and run through a food processor for shredding. Kevin stayed focused and worked hard for two hours without a break.
I have to say that I was so proud and excited for him. It was like being a coach and bringing your freshman high jumper to an Olympic Trial and having him win the event. I was on a serious pride high!
Kevin Is Cooking
Since that first day Kevin has excelled at everything he has been asked to do. He has grilled 300 tournedos, deep fried over 1,000 chicken wings, grilled hundreds of sausages and done everything to the chef’s approval. His favorite task was the chicken wings (he liked watching the bubbles).
Last week Kevin’s parents came to the club to observe. They were overwhelmed with pride. Kevin’s father kept repeating “This is the real thing!” When he shook my hand before leaving, I could see the emotion welling up in his eyes.
That was a special moment for me.