Teaching kitchen offers opportunity for workers with special needs

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This article was published on the Brown County Democrat by Abigail Youmans on June 15, 2021.

When Chef Dustie Condon was opening the Nashville House kitchen, a woman reached out to ask if her sister could work with her. She had experience in restaurants and helping with the family, and some learning disabilities, but also had a desire to work and learn.

Condon said yes to Kathryn, whose mother asked that her last name not be used in this story.

She was quiet to start, but began opening up the more they got to know each other. Condon would play her favorite music as they cooked and baked, and asked Kathryn questions about travel and other things she was interested in.

As they got to know each other, Condon began to understand the different places people land on the special needs spectrum.

“She had a lot of potential, more than I usually see in the kitchen,” said Condon, who’s been working in the Nashville House and on a new bistro being put in the Ferguson House.

“When the Ferguson House bistro became an idea, I told the general manager that I wanted to take Kate with me.”

When Condon and Kathryn started coming up with recipes for the bistro, their conversations began to grow.

“She makes me a better person,” Condon said.

“I think everyone needs to slow down and be kinder, but sometimes in life you meet someone that brings out a better side of you. That’s what Kathryn does for me.”

Condon began thinking that if more people with special needs had an opportunity to work and learn, many more would flourish.

She’s now seeing that idea come to fruition through The Essential Ingredient, an opportunity for adults with special needs to train in a commercial kitchen, learn to prepare global cuisine, and find success in a career that they will enjoy.

The program will be housed at the Ferguson House Bistro when it opens.

To find participants, Condon reached out to Brown County High School Principal Matt Stark, who got her in touch with Barb Kelp, the transition coordinator and special needs teacher at the school.

Kelp knew of a similar program near Ball State University, and it had been her dream to have that kind of opportunity in Brown County.

So far, they have interviewed four people to work in the teaching kitchen.

As transition coordinator, Kelp helps students work toward life after high school, whether it’s college, the work force or more training. After completing classroom-based and school-based lessons, students can go out into the community to work, but often, those jobs are just on a volunteer basis.

This opportunity to gain skills for a paid job takes it to another level. The program allows them to “work and get experience, then carry it over to the Essential Ingredient, getting paid in the kitchen. Then they can take those skills and stay in culinary or take experience into a job they want to have,” Kelp said.

They hope that as students go through the program, they’re able to grow to a point where they can confidently achieve independence.

“It’s not classes. It’s purely a job opportunity,” Condon said. “Maybe young adults come into my kitchen and they want to work at Big Woods. They need experience here first before I release them.”

The Essential Agreement is using employability standards that have been developed by Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The four main categories are mindsets, like self-confidence; learning strategies, like communication and problem solving; work ethic, like professionalism and time management; and social and emotional skills.

“With the job market like it is, it’s our intention to train people so that they’re excellent employees for whatever the job is they want to do,” Kelp said.

The Essential Ingredient kitchen is open to workers age 18 and up, as the Department of Labor has certain age requirements in certain kitchen roles. But that doesn’t mean that those younger than 18 can’t come in and bus tables or roll silverware, Condon said.

“Any age can reach out and I’ll connect them to things that they don’t know are there,” Kelp said.

Condon said that there’s a term in a restaurant: “aces in their places.” When it’s busy, everyone needs to be doing what they do best.

In the Essential Ingredient teaching kitchen, aces will be able to know what their places are, by helping workers tap into talents they may not have realized.

Kelp, who’s taught for 31 years, said that in that time, she’s seen graduates settle for the jobs they think are available to them.

“The fact that there’s an opportunity to do things within their skill range, find new skills and cultivate them, to dream bigger than they thought was possible, is life changing,” she said.

Condon said while she understands that parents are protective, she believes that no matter the circumstance, everyone should be treated as equal.

“It doesn’t matter your ability, race, educational level,” she said. “Pay should be equal; if you can do the job, you should make the money.”

She said that when she was speaking to some of the parents in the interview process, they said it was alright if their children only did trays, floors or dishes.

“I explained to the parent that I don’t know what kind of talent their child is hiding,” she said. “A couple parents said it made them realize they were holding their child back.”

Some parents have been moved to tears during their children’s interviews, Kelp said. “They said this is an answer to prayer: ‘This is what we’ve been looking for,’” she said.

“All people can be contributors to the community — consistent, reliable and dependable employees. Anyone can apply that has a disability.”

At the Ferguson House Bistro, Condon plans to offer a culinary experience that Nashville does not yet have. Her mother-in-law is from the Japanese island of Okinawa, and the sous chef at the bistro is half Filipino, so most of the inspiration for the menu is Asian cuisine.

Condon said her motto is “If you’re not learning, you’re not living,” so not only will staff discover what they’re capable of, but they will have an immersive experience. They will learn the food, language and other aspects of the cultures that inspire the cuisine.

“You’re not just a food slinger,” she said. “This is a teaching kitchen.”

“The level that Dustie is offering is unmatched,” Kelp said.

As this program grows, Condon said that the C4 program in Columbus wants to be involved. Columbus Regional Hospital also has expressed interest.

Nashville Spice Co. is a sponsor of the program, too. One of the Nashville Spice Co.’s recipes will be hosted at the Ferguson House Bistro once a month, providing a recipe card and spice packet for $3 each, with the money going toward The Essential Ingredient.

The future vision is for the program be a nonprofit, with a board, a teaching center and job recruiting center for all careers. Condon said she’d also like to be able to provide clothes and transportation for the people who are involved.

“I have a lot of big dreams,” she said.

For now, they will focus on the culinary aspect.

Condon has done outreach for high-risk youth in Indianapolis, fostering and fundraising for animal shelters. “I’ve always felt a big pull for purpose within a community,” she said. “We can find opportunity for people.”

Since starting in the kitchen, Kathryn is now working as Condon’s assistant full time. Using the blow torch on crème brulee, making chocolate truffles and French cream for crepes, she has grown to a point where she’s not only completely independent in the kitchen, but she’s also taking what she learns home to her family.

She now wants to help teach within the program.

“It gives me purpose,” she said. “I think it’s time for me to teach other people, that have the same learning disabilities I do, to have a job, and to be happy and maybe have some money, to do whatever they want to do with it.”