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Cooking Up Empowerment: My Experience Creating, Running, and Teaching a Culinary Training Program for Teenagers with Severe Special Needs

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By Adam J. Pearson

In 2016, I received a phone call from a Vice Principal at the school at which I had previously worked as a Resource Teacher of Mathematics, English, Ethics and Religious Culture, and History, focusing my educational work on adolescents with severe behavioural needs and emotional, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. At this time, I was studying psychology at Concordia university and was in the swing of Final Exam season. I was certainly not expecting a phone call from one of my old bosses; after all, I had left teaching behind to try my hand at helping people through a different means — psychology.

Still, the phone rang. I answered, shocked to hear my old boss’s voice; as a Resource Teacher, she had been my boss, for she was the key decision-maker in hiring choices for Resource work and special needs teaching, attendant, and technician work. Her message came as a complete surprise: “Adam, would you be interested in creating a culinary training program for the students in the Work-Oriented Training Program?” I was shocked. The Work-Oriented Training Program is a program for students with severe special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome, borderline personality disorder with comorbid diagnoses, and other students who have failed out of the mainstream curriculum.

Immersed in the stress of Finals, I was in no position to take on a project this large. But in this unexpected request, I saw a great opportunity to empower students who would be very vulnerable in the job market with concrete skills and knowledge they could use. I could bring together my passions for teaching, cooking from my own culinary school training as a Chef, psychology, and my newly-growing love for social work all at once. How could I pass that up? When the community calls, sometimes you just have to make it work. “Can I come in to the school to talk with you about it in person?” I asked. “How does Friday sound?” She replied. It sounded perfect.

As the days leading up to the meeting passed, I put together a quick Program Proposal for what I called the Work-Oriented Culinary Training Program. I was willing to design the curriculum and teach it. But I had my conditions. (1) I would only teach recipes that were healthy and which embedded knowledge about nutrition that the students could take into their lives beyond the program. (2) I would only do it if I could teach real culinary skills drawn from my own formal culinary education, nothing patronizingly simplified. (3) I wanted to be paid at a teacher’s salary.

I went in to the meeting, presented my program in an elegantly-crafted Report, replete with fine graphic design, proposed lesson plans, and sample recipes. I laid out my conditions. And my Vice Principal agreed with all of them. The one that gave her pause was the second condition, that I intended to teach advanced culinary knowledge to students who were often underestimated for their capabilities.

“Are you sure that they’ll be able to handle these advanced recipes?” She asked.

“With support and step-by-step breakdowns of the skills and knowledge, I’m confident that they can. Amazing things can happen when we combine high expectations with appropriate support.” With that, she was convinced. I got the job, and I got what I believed was 100% control of my program. Or so I believed.

On this initial meeting day, I was told that I would have access to the Cafeteria’s industrial kitchen to use as a culinary classroom. Perfect! I thought. I visited the kitchen and took a detailed inventory of the pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards that were available there for potential lesson planning. I then set about planning my lessons and curriculum with this set-up in mind.

The following week, I received a phone call. As it turned out, due to union regulations, I would not be able to use the cafeteria kitchen. The slightly less well-equipped home economics room was similarly off the table due to already being booked. I was stunned. I was officially hired to teach a culinary training program… with no kitchen!

My first reaction? Not cool adaptiveness, I assure you. I freaked out. Frustration and anxiety swirled in dark stormclouds within the spaciousness of my consciousness. How the heck can I teach a cooking class with no kitchen? It seemed impossible.

But sometimes in community practice, the only way is to find a way. So I figured it out. I’d buy my own bloody cutting boards and knives for the students to use. I’d bring in my own pots and pans from home. I’d liaise and coordinate and beg to borrow hot plates that could be placed on the wooden tables in the woodshop where the Work-Oriented Training Program students did their woodworking classes. It would be culinary school in a woodshop, ladies and gentlemen.

So, I adapted, planned, and found a way. I had to compromise on equipment, but I refused to compromise on my recipes. We were going to teach my curriculum as initially planned. And when the time came? We did it. The kids were delighted to see me walk into class on the first day, dressed completely in Chef whites and a black apron. I introduced the class to them, explained that my expectations of them were high but that I would help them reach them, and that we would learn advanced cooking skills and food theory that would give them far more knowledge and abilities than 99% of the Grade 11 students in the mainstream curriculum. Since many of the students had failed out of that curriculum in Grade 9, this was an intriguing sales pitch!

And so, we did it. Since many of my new students could only minimally  write, I created fill-in-the-blank note sheets for them each class and turned the theory sections into games. I drew Super Mario coins near each blank and told them that each blank they filled in represented unlocking a coin; to beat the game of the class, they had to unlock them all. They loved it. They learned without knowing they were learning. I used PowerPoints with bright colourful pictures to teach the material. Some students brought USB keys in and asked me to transfer the PowerPoints and course materials to them so they could review them at home. I was all too happy to do that.

What were the results? In two words, absolutely mindblowing. They not only met my high expectations — they exceeded them. In culinary school, they told us that it was impossible to make a stock from roasted chicken bones in 30 minutes. Guess what? They did it. And in the same class, they learned to make composed salads, vinaigrettes from scratch, and turn their stocks into traditional Thai soups. All in a single class.

They learned advanced food theory. I gave them examples of the different forms of heating–conduction, convection and radiation–and asked them to identify which form the example represented. Hands shot up. The microwave? “Radiation!” The frying pan? “Conduction!” Water boiling on a stovetop — a trick question — “Conduction AND convection!” They were amazing! Who says these kids couldn’t learn theory? They knew more about food chemistry than everyone else in their entire school and most adults I know!

I taught them plating principles from the highest-rated Michelin-starred restaurants in the world and asked them to emulate them. They did it. They breaded fish fillets from scratch and made elegant garlic potatoes. They learned to make tomato sauce and bechamel from scratch, then used them to make derivative sauces, rosee and mornay. They met every challenge I put before them. They tasted their food and adjusted their seasoning and listened carefully to my feedback. It wasn’t always easy–sometimes they freaked out, shouted in frustration, burst into tears, or got into arguments with their partners–but they made it anyway. In the whole course? Not a single student messed up a single recipe. Not one. Zero. I was so proud of them that I sometimes had tears in my eyes…

When they completed my rigorous program, I gave them all formal culinary certificates of completion. Some students had never before received such a certificate and I learned that some of their parents framed them so they could proudly display them on their walls. By asking students to work together throughout the course, I was able to weave social skills training into the lessons; they learned to be more sociable, be part of teams, and respect a work environment hierarchy without even realizing they were doing it, all skills that would prove invaluable in the job market and in life. Most of all, they did things no one ever believed they could, that they didn’t even believe they could. And they did them every day.

When I look back on my time doing this form of community practice, I have nothing but fond memories. Some days, I was incredibly stressed. I had basically no budget and had to beg, and beg for funding every week — a theme in community practice, is it not? We went through so many obstacles and challenges. And yet, together, as a class, we did it. We succeeded as individuals and as a group. I grew as a teacher. I grew as a social worker-to-be. And they grew as neophyte cooks, as workers, and as people. Through it all, I saw concrete evidence of the power of believing in people and thereby teaching them to believe in themselves.

In community practice, we are sometimes called on to step up and make the seemingly impossible, possible. They asked me to teach a culinary training program to kids with severe special needs in a bloody woodshop. Impossible? It sure seemed so. And yet, together, as a group and as individuals, as a collective, as a community, we used that space, like culinary carpenters, to carve a new generation of cooks.

Actual Conversation From One Lesson:

Me: “Who can tell me the ideal dressing for a fruit salad?”
Student, without hesitation: 

Me: *cracks up for a moment before regaining my composure*
I don’t know if that would be my absolute *first* choice…

Student: “MAYO! MAYO! MAYO!”

Me: “I was thinking more along the lines of lime juice and maple syrup, but that’s an innovative suggestion…”

Student: “Only one way to find out, Sir…”

Me: “You’re absolutely right. That’s just one flavour train I’m not getting on…”

Read More from Adam Pearson at


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