Finding the IDEAL cook

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Sometimes it’s easy to take routine daily tasks, such as cooking dinner, for granted.

But for Lipscomb’s IDEAL program participants, preparing a meal is a skill that doesn’t always come easily. On Friday, Sept. 19, the 11 students in this year-old program, especially designed for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, had a unique opportunity to learn a few cooking basics.

The aroma of chicken, sautéed mushrooms and pasta filled the kitchen of the university’s nutrition house as the eager young cooks gathered around to watch a culinary creation take shape at the hands of Mark Lloyd, district executive chef/general manager with Eurest Dining.

Lloyd is passionate about cooking. And he is deeply passionate about providing opportunities for anyone who wants to know more about the culinary arts to learn—especially those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Four years ago he founded Special Culinary Challenge, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “provide culinary training to friends with disabilities who have a passion for the culinary arts” and to provide confidence and growth in these skills.

When he isn’t overseeing the food service operations as head chef at Dollar General’s corporate headquarters in Goodlettsville, Tenn., he devotes much of his time to equip and empower those with disabilities with basic skills and knowledge to cook.

“In my industry, there are not many programs for those who have a disability who might want to take up culinary arts,” said Lloyd. “Maybe some day there will be a school especially developed to serve this population. In the meantime, I wanted to do something that fills that need. I believe that no matter if someone has an intellectual or developmental disability or a lack of resources or whatever the obstacle might be if they have an interest in cooking, there should be a way to learn. I also believe there could be a lot of untapped job potential for these folks as well.”

IDEAL_storyMisty Vetter, director of special education programs for the College of Education and IDEAL program founder, said the Special Culinary Challenge provides instruction in independent skills that help lead to a better quality of life for students. She said Lloyd learned about Lipscomb’s IDEAL program through the university’s connections with Special Olympics of Middle Tennessee.

“One of the main objectives of the IDEAL program, in addition to the academic coursework, is to help our students develop life skills that will better equip them for independence and that can help prepare them for a job,” she said. “Being able to cook for themselves allows these students to be more independent. This program has the potential not only to teach them much-needed skills but also to ignite a passion for cooking. This is a great partnership for our program.”

Lloyd will visit the IDEAL program twice a month during the fall semester, teaching them a new skill or recipe each time. He is teaching them basic skills such as cutting food safely, proper food storage, reading a recipe and preparing simple meals.

“I try to start off small and build on what the students’ interests are,” said Lloyd. “I will teach them anything. If they want me to teach them how to go food shopping at a grocery store I will. We may even go visit a kitchen at a restaurant so they can see how those operate. I want them to have fun.”

During the demonstration, students asked Lloyd a number of questions ranging from why the cooking created “so much smoke” to asking him about his favorite celebrity chefs to whether or not he had ever cooked using jalapeño peppers. They also shared their experiences from dining at restaurants and at home.

“This gives us a good chance to learn something new,” said Matt Branch, first-year IDEAL student. “I’m learning how to cook food or how to be a chef one day.”

Student Jenna Staehling said she took a cooking class in the eighth grade and that she “had fun learning this today.”

“This was very good,” said IDEAL student Josh Ahlberg. “I really liked learning something new and how to make something new.”

Lloyd said he believes students with intellectual or developmental disabilities have a bright future in culinary arts-related jobs.

“We are in the business of repetition. We follow recipes and repeat our steps every time we prepare that dish. In restaurants, much of our work is repetitious as we prepare food,” he said. “If someone has the desire to cook and you teach them what to do, they can be successful in this profession. The key is finding chefs who have the patience and the time to take them under their wing and teach them.”

Whether or not learning more about culinary arts opens doors to job opportunities for these IDEAL students, Lloyd said he just wants to help.

“My real goal,” he said, “is for these young people to be able to go home and cook dinner for someone and to hold their heads high because they feel confident about themselves. By the end of this class they will be cooking me dinner.”

Learn more about the IDEAL program at Lipscomb University here and about the Special Culinary Challenge here.

The IDEAL Program is partially funded by a grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, with generous support from the SunTrust Foundation, the Memorial Foundation and Lipscomb’s College of Education.

— Photos by Chris Netterville