By Pola Esguerra del Monte, High Life Staff Writer

Cooks with special needs shine in the kitchen

Posted on May 08, 2015

A PREP COOK in his early twenties, Ibarra Gargantiel had this specific instruction to carry out. Boiling noodles in front of a crowd at his corner in Madrid Fusión Manila’s recently concluded trade exhibit, he noted to his audience that the noodles will be cooked “eight minutes until al dente.” He had to say that again, while keeping a watchful eye at the clock. Mr. Gargantiel, an adult with autism, was under the scrutiny of cameras and hungry onlookers.

After exactly eight minutes, the tong-bearing cook strained the strands of spaghetti and swirled the noodles in a spicy coco mango sauce. On top, he placed a piece of steaming hot fish, lapu-lapu “deep-fried until golden brown and delicious,” crusted with pinipig that made it crisp to the edges.

With an anxious smile, he lifted the plate, bringing it to a Spanish chef who had asked for a bite. A moment of silence, and the chef, slurping at the noodles and biting at the crisp fish, gave his verdict.

“Very, very, very good!” 

The crowd burst into applause as small cups of Mr. Gargantiel’s pasta were passed around. His teacher, Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco, who stood behind him at the kitchen the entire time, stepped down the pedestal with tears on her eyes. 

Ms. Wijangco is the executive chef of Gourmet Gypsy Art Café and founder of Open Hand School for Applied Arts. Mr. Gargantiel is her pioneer student who had special needs, and perhaps her first success in her goal to develop adults capable of employment and entrepreneurship. Mr. Gargantiel, who currently interns at Gourmet Gypsy, is also planning to put up his own food truck selling Asian Noodles.

“Our goal is to find a place for everybody who has exceptional needs to be responsible members of society,” she said, wiping her tears after the demo at the Breville Philippines’ stall. Breville, purveyor of advanced cookers, had lent an hour and their high-end equipment to the duo. Breville had also provided a venue so Mr. Gargantiel could practice his entire demo, including his knife skills.

Ms. Wijangco had arrived at this position by accident. Mr. Gargantiel’s mom, Matec Villanueva, CEO of Publicis Manila, had asked Ms. Wijangco to teach her son how to cook, after observing his fascination with the cooking show Iron Chef. From offering a two-week course with the same program as with her other students, Ms. Wijangco ended up crafting vocational programs for workplace-readiness: Life Skills Development, Get Ready to Work, Towards Employment and Entrepreneurship, and Transition into Employment. 

“They can start a business,” she said. “The program is very tailored to their skills and their needs.” Not all students are like Mr. Gargantiel, who has a natural talent for cooking. There are students whose cooking skills need to be developed further, but the school still thinks about how they can build an enterprise, or how they can be employed. 

“We have a student who can now bake 10 items, she’s mastered the recipes,” Ms. Wijangco said. “We taught her how to package, box, do simple inventory, simple debit-credit accounting. She can now supply to cafés. So that’s an entrepreneur already.”

Ms. Wijangco started Gypsy Art Café to set a precedent. There, she currently has six students with special needs. Two are working in the kitchen, two at the front-of-house, and two are in the office to do administration work such as inventory and accounting. 

“They are so honest,” she said. “It’s like having your own human CCTV. They will not lie, they will not cheat, they will not steal. And if they see someone doing it, they will report it. And they work so hard.”

According to her, Mr. Gargantiel even has to be reminded to stop during his breaktime, because he is so focused on work. “They’re very eager, they’re incapable of intrigue. Once you train them, they are really, really good workers,” Ms. Wijangco said.

She believes that adults with special needs who are to join the workforce must earn the same as any other employees. The restaurant, however, is not able to provide the same level yet as the students are technically still under a job training program. “One of our goals is to create an army of job coaches to help them adjust into a workplace, then we can leave them alone,” Ms. Wijangco said.

There are places that have begun to give work to adults with special needs, such as Zambawood, a beach resort in San Narciso, Zambales, which has allocated 30% of its positions to that work force.

Zambawood was founded by Rachel Fernandez Harrison, herself a mother of an autistic son, with the aim of creating a “holistic community” in this corner of the country.

There are a variety of activities here for employees with special needs -- from arts to sports, including a surfing program that the employees can participate in, when they’re not looking after chickens and the vegetable farm, or cooking in the kitchen, or bussing tables.

 Back in Manila, Mr. Gargantiel’s mother remains optimistic of her son’s future. “I’m gonna die someday, who’s gonna take care of him?” she asked. Gargantiel’s successful demo, his progressive internship, and the soon-to-open food truck are all things she never imagined. “I didn’t dream he will go this far, I just dreamed that he will be independent.”

“They may have a disability, but they’re not lame, they’re not paralyzed, they can do things. They’re capable of good work,” she said. “It’s possible. It’s possible.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Gargantiel is working hard on the night shift at Gourmet Gypsy. 

“Every night, two to 10 p.m.” he said. “I’m satisfied to be part of the night-shift crew, because the restaurant wants to have more customers.”

And when they have more customers?

“They have more orders,” he answered. 

And when they have more orders? 

With a huge smile on his face, the budding entrepreneur seemed to understand: “We’ll have more money!”

Open Hand School for Applied Arts is located at RCS Building, Matatag near corner of Matulungin Street, Barangay Central, Diliman, Quezon City. Call 668-5635 or 0919-7496, or send an email to openhandschool@gmail.com
For more of Breville’s advanced cookers for chefs and budding chefs, visit www.breville.com.ph