Cooking up change, stirring in hope
A one-of-a-kind cookery institute in the city is trying to make persons with developmental disabilities independent by teaching them the most important life skill
In the indu-strial wasteland of Reay Road, Magazine Street Kitchen is something of an oasis. It's half past ten on a Monday morning and the exclusive fine dining restaurant is closed. The housekeeping staff is going about its morning chores and two members of the kitchen staff are working in solitude while one of them seems to be packing something in a plastic foil. Yusuf Shaikh, 21, is the only other member of the staff, chopping vegetables deftly and carefully putting them away. Shaikh is part of the team that makes meals for the restaurant's staff. He has cerebral palsy. When he speaks, you barely understand the words, but he understands what you tell him perfectly. Until recently, it hadn't even occurred to the 20-year-old from Govandi that he'd be able to commute without the help of his mother. In September this year, Shaikh graduated from Goregaon's Culinaris Cookery Institute and is now interning with Magazine Street Kitchen.
Rajat Ramteke, 19, has Autism. Pic/Abhishek Mande Bhot
Culinaris claims to be the first culinary institute for persons with developmental disabilities. The idea is to empower people to be independent. "And you cannot be completely independent if you aren't able to make yourself a meal," says Tatyana Dias, who set up Culinaris with partner, Rohan Dias. Culinaris itself is part of Veruschka Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that works in the area of developmental disabilities. The foundation is named after Tatyana's sister, who was diagnosed with autism when she was eight and passed away in 2015 at age 27. When she passed on, Tatyana, who'd completed her doctorate in Neurobiology and had a comfortable job in Cambridge, returned home to Mumbai. "I knew I wanted to work in this [developmental disabilities] space but wasn't sure what that would be," she says. While researching on the work being done in Mumbai, she discovered that almost every special school only takes students up to a certain age. "The moment they turn 18 or so, the schools request their parents to take them away. Parents worry about how the child would survive after they're gone. It's a genuine concern because these kids aren't equipped with even the most basic life skill—that of preparing their own food."
Yusuf Shaikh, 21, has Cerebral Palsy and works at Magazine Street Kitchen. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Tatyana says that most parents are afraid of letting their developmentally disabled children near the gas stove or around sharp objects like knives. "So, our job, really, starts with educating the parents that it's okay for them to do so. Then, we make the children understand that the tools aren't toys and they need to be handled carefully. It's only after that that the training starts."
Tatyana Dias, 35, and Rohan Dias, 37 run Culinaris Cookery Institute in Goregaon. Pics/Abhishek Mande Bhot
Culinaris offers two programmes—vocational and independent living, covering all aspects of working in a professional kitchen. They start with non-gas cooking during which they often have to teach students how to hold a knife. This is followed by cooking with gas and baking. "Rohan and I realised there was an interest among the developmentally disabled community in learning cooking, so we launched a cooking competition in September 2016 where we invited students from special schools to showcase their talent. It received encouraging feedback following which we launched a course at St Andrew's College. Unfortunately, we had to move out after we outgrew the facilities provided there." The pair has now rented a space in Goregaon, set up a kitchen, got professional chefs to help them out and made it their full-time gig. Rohan, who used to be associate creative director at an advertising agency, quit the job to run the institute while Tatyana works part-time for an NGO to keep the kitchen fires burning.
While they have chefs on their staff, veteran chef Sanjeev Kapoor also helps them by sending over members of his team to hold guest lectures. In the last six months, 22 students have graduated from Culinaris and nine of them are working at various kitchens around the city. "The job placement system works differently in case of our students. We have to take into consideration the comfort levels their parents enjoy—some of them don't want their children to work at all. We also don't encourage recruiters to push the kids beyond four hours a day. This, so that they're able to travel during off-peak hours and deal with everyday pressures. To us, that's beyond comprehension, It often starts with managing to get to work itself," Rohan says.
When he first left Govandi to go to work, Shaikh's mother was afraid he'd get lost. So, she followed him discreetly. It was a crowded day, the bus broke down and it seemed like Shaikh wouldn't make it on his first day itself. But he asked around, found an auto, got into a train and showed up at the appointed time. That's when she knew that her son would do fine after she's gone.
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