Special chefs in an inspired kitchen

For use with column by Danial Rahman for 9/12/16

HANDICAPABLE students from the Selayang Community College are given the opportunity to run a café as part of their skills education programme.

This happened last week.

While walking around exhibition booths at an event in the Putra World Trade Centre, I found myself at a pop-up café named “Inspired Kitchen”. The cafe was located within the booth of the Higher Education Ministry.

I walked up to Inspired Kitchen’s front counter and said with confidence, “One Americano, no sugar, take-away, please!”

My request was met with silence and a blank stare.

The barista proceeded to point to the menu.

I ignored him, as I was quite certain of what I wanted. I repeated myself, “Black coffee, to go, no need sugar, please”.

I was once again met with silence and a blank stare, followed by pointing towards the menu.

“He’s deaf, Danial!” said my friend.

At that point I noticed he’s wearing a hearing aid.

The barista gave me a smile.

Slightly embarrassed, I pointed to “coffee” on the menu. The barista nodded, I handed over RM5 for the drink, and he proceeded to grind Monjava coffee beans using a Gaggia coffee-maker.

The barista, Tay Ming Wei, is hearing impaired.

He was a friendly young man with a positive attitude. As I attempted to ask him questions about Inspired Kitchen using my limited knowledge of sign language alphabets, Tay was quick to point at my phone, reminding me that I could type what I wanted to ask, and that he’d answer by typing back.

Tay, who hails from Kuantan, Pahang, is currently a student at the Selayang Community College taking up a certificate in “basic culinary skills”. He enjoys “cooking anything really”.

When I asked him what it’s like learning at the Selayang Community College, he gave me a thumbs up, and a smile.

So, what’s Inspired Kitchen?

At that point, I met Fazilawati Fazil, aka Kak Faz, who shared that Inspired Kitchen is a platform, started by the Selayang Community College, for its students to hone their entrepreneurial skills as well as put to practise the things they’d learned in a real-world setting.

Once known as Dapurku Ilhamku (My Kitchen, My Inspiration), over time the idea was refined and rebranded as Inspired Kitchen. The café’s concept, the menu, and the operations were put together by Selayang Community College personnel, including Zainah Rujihan, the director, and Mohd Tasuan, the head chef.

“Inspired Kitchen started in 2014. By providing our students this platform, they are able to interact with members of the public, use their skills, and learn what it takes to run a business. Alhamdulillah, we have seen them grow in confidence”, Kak Faz, a Selayang Community College lecturer who teaches pastry-making, said.

“This also enables us to groom them for bigger challenges, including participation in the International Abilympics Competition”, she added.

Side note – the International Abilympics Competition is a skills competition for persons with disabilities. This year, Muhammad Safiuddin Rosli from the Selayang Community College emerged in 5th place out of 24 participants in the cooking category of the competition which was held in Bordeaux, France.

That week, Tay was one of six handicapable students on duty at Inspired Kitchen, together with Wong, who was quite shy. Together with them were a few able-bodied students, one of whom was Firdaus.

Firdaus, who hails from Selangor, said that working with his handicapable peers was a unique experience.

While mostly rewarding, Firdaus said that “At times, it certainly tests our patience, especially when they can’t hear us calling them or they don’t understand the orders that are placed”.

“But, whenever it happens, I put myself in their shoes. Empathy is important. Overall, we are good friends and we work well together. I also get to learn a bit of sign language”.

Kak Faz added that the challenges in teaching the students were unique, but it’s something she and her fellow teachers took in their stride. At times, she saw herself as a mother-like figure.

Yearly, 15 handicapable students are enrolled into the “basics in culinary skills” certificate programme at the Selayang Community College. It is a 16-month programme, 12 of which are spent learning various types of cuisines, including a yummy sambal fusilli (which was on sale at Inspired Kitchen), with the final four months attached to one of the community college’s industry partners (a restaurant, fast-food chain, cafe etc).

Students undergoing the programme aren’t just those with hearing impairment. Some are autistic and others are slow-learners. The students are taught separately from the able-bodied students in order to provide more attention, but mix together for co-curricular activities (including manning Inspired Kitchen).

To date, Kak Faz tells me that more than 130 students have graduated from the programme.

“These students have a bright future. One of our alumni is currently a manager at a Starbucks in Bangsar,” she says proudly. “We hope to highlight our alumni success stories in time to come”.

This programme is one of many opportunities available for special students within Malaysia’s higher education landscape. Nationwide, there are 94 community colleges, and about 10 of those, from Selangor to Malacca, to Sabah and Sarawak, offering programmes for handicapable students. Among the other programmes offered are pastry making, information technology, landscaping, creative stitching and food processing.

Community colleges cater to members of the community who are keen to enhance their technical and vocational skills. Without a doubt, community colleges play an important role in producing gifted technical and vocational graduates, enculturing lifelong learning, and reminding us that there’s always something new to learn out there.

When I asked Tay what his ambitionwas, he told me that one day he dreams of becoming a chef. He then placed his hands over his head and gestured as though he’s wearing one of those tall chef hats.

* Thank you to Datuk Amir Md Noor, Director General of the Department of Community Colleges, Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia, for your support and to everyone who contributed to this piece.

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Danial Rahman , columnist

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.


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