Illustrative gif of a series of kitchen utensils

Illustration by Michele Perry

How students are cooking up change in their community

The Chef Abilities culinary program for high schoolers is changing perceptions around disability

It’s nearly lunchtime, and the kitchen is bustling. It smells delicious, too. One student carefully fills cups with vanilla yogurt and fruit to make parfaits, while another threads cut peppers, meatballs and pineapple chunks onto wooden skewers under the watchful eye of two instructors who are familiar with the young cooks’ intellectual and mobility strengths and challenges. After the skewers have been grilled to a golden sizzle, 12 of the young cooks’ fellow students and staff members at their school will join them and dig in to the meal.

Chef Abilities teaches cooking and baking skills to people aged 14 to 21 at Applewood Secondary School in Mississauga. Applewood is a public high school whose mission is to support students with varying abilities to become independent and successful community members. Their motto? #SeetheAbility.

“It doesn’t matter what their strengths and abilities are; I [always] ask myself: ‘What can I do to help them improve in whatever area?’”

Four days a week, the students in Chef Abilities make and serve lunch at what’s called Apples Café. While this part of the program has been operating for decades, last September it expanded to include a social enterprise element, where students make products like focaccia or jars filled with cookie ingredients to sell. So, on top of learning culinary skills, they’re learning how to test and market their own products.

“We work to the students’ abilities,” says teaching assistant Carrie Junkin. Program coordinator Jen Ariyo agrees. “It doesn’t matter what their strengths and abilities are; I [always] ask myself: ‘What can I do to help them improve in whatever area?’”

At the beginning of the year, Ariyo assesses the students by asking them to bake something. Those with the strongest skills are designated “Greens.” Those who can work relatively independently are “Yellows.” And those who need sustained one-to-one support are “Reds.” She then matches up students so there’s a mix of abilities in each group, with Greens mentoring Yellows and Reds.

“…she’s “learned how to work together with other students, and how to be safe in the kitchen.”

Some participants may not be able to cook when they arrive, but Ariyo includes them by assigning tasks such as washing dishes, grocery shopping or putting food away. She also adapts certain tasks after determining what supports each student needs to be successful. “My first year, I had a student who only had one mobile hand, and I figured out, ‘Oh, OK, I’ve got a stand mixer [that can] grate cheese,’” recalls Ariyo. “We made pizza, and [the student] was so proud when she was serving the staff and students. Seeing that sense of self-esteem—it was the best moment ever.”

Self-esteem is definitely one of the main benefits students derive from Chef Abilities. Other big ones are nutritional knowledge and the important life skill of being able to plan and prepare a meal, which students can put to work at home and, for some, at work placements in restaurants such as Boston Pizza and Shoeless Joe’s.

“We made pizza, and [the student] was so proud when she was serving the staff and students. Seeing that sense of self-esteem—it was the best moment ever.”

There’s also the social aspect of belonging to a team. “I enjoy serving people and like working with friends,” says Samantha, 19, who’s in her second of three years in Chef Abilities. She says besides getting better at baking and cooking (she loves making cookies), she’s “learned how to work together with other students, and how to be safe in the kitchen.”

The young chefs recently did their first catering job, for which they made appetizers for 100 people. All money the group makes through social entrepreneurship is reinvested back into the school to help fund this and other programs at Applewood. Recently, they’ve been able to make major purchases, including a commercial dishwasher and oven. Experience using both appliances is a big plus for students looking for jobs, notes Ariyo.

And it’s not only the students who get a lot out of Chef Abilities—the instructors benefit, too. “The students teach me all of these tips,” enthuses Junkin. “I’ve become a better cook.” Ariyo finds satisfaction in seeing the students surpass their own and other people’s expectations. “People with disabilities are underestimated all of the time, and it’s amazing the abilities that they have,” says Ariyo. “I just love what I do.”

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