Flash Says…

What are your tips for a physically disabled wannabe masterchef?

Posted on: 2014-08-09

I have a keen interest in food. This was instilled by my much missed dad, who took me to Michelin starred restaurants from primary school onwards, and encouraged me to love what I ate and drank.

This passion for gastronomy has spilled over into a love of watching food programmes, and the odd over-ambitious garnish at home. Still, at least presentation was being considered!

There were many funny moments with my dad, like at home when he would get very uppity about doing his ‘mise en place’; and when in hospital the dietician was concerned he wasnt eating, I had to rein him in from being as brutal as he intended about her bulk-catered food. The dietician asked about the last meat he ate at home, which by chance had been a farm-shop guineafowl… I tried not to laugh and to say ‘well to be fair it must be hard to provide for a whole hospital on a budget’ but she got the idea as to why my dad wouldnt eat a generic and gelatinous Gala Pie. Actually my family were often on a tight budget, but that just meant that they appreciated that meat wasnt something you could eat every day, and that you had to shop around and eat seasonal local produce. (“They were lucky…” But stop me before I slip into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch…) Still, there were also many excellent moments when I tried food in my youth that youngsters wouldn’t normally encounter – veal, for example. And one of the dinners my mother regularly put in front of me was a good quality steak in a bun, with fresh onion, tomato, and cucumber relish. No fishfingers or chicken nuggets for us. When I decided to become vegetarian, aged 11, I could at least base my decision on morals, having enjoyed a range of tasty meat dishes, and knowing what I was rejecting.

Anyway, my family taught me to appreciate good food from a young age, to enjoy the best we could afford and that good food was a luxury, and I will always be grateful to my dad in particular for that. Indeed, on the anniversary of his death every year I go out for a decent meal or experience that he would have enjoyed.

Physical disability makes cooking rather difficult for me, but I persevere as it is a passion. I have two folders of recipes – sweet and savoury – which are printouts or written by hand, then annotated with personal notes relating to my own issues, equipment or oven. If something is unsuccessful then it is ripped out of the folder! If it works – or sounds good and Im likely to try it soon – it stays. I use the folders for reference for favourite regular dishes and snacks as well as inspiration for dishes that I’ve wanted to try for a while.

I love watching Masterchef in particular. Ive watched so many series, from UK, Australia (my fave), New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Ireland… Every weekday, I watch a couple of hours and always try to figure out what I’d do with that mystery box of strange ingredients. In fact it struck me recently that when I watch their masterclasses and take copious notes, then try out those dishes in my kitchen, that perhaps this is my own equivalent of an OU study course!

Ive also eaten the food of several UK masterchefs, and talk to some of them via twitter, and I have foodie friends to bounce my food ideas off – all of this is inspirational!

Sadly I dont feel I can ever aspire to Masterchef because even if I reached the cooking standard, my physical limitations are just too great. Even if I did participate, I could never work in the trade. But let’s pretend, ok? Because I like to dream along to imagine what I would create when I watch the challenges, and plan what I’d do for the judges if only I could.



QUESTION 1: WHICH BASICS SHOULD I (OR ANY BUDDING CHEF) MASTER?

Let’s assume Im aiming for more than a home cook standard. I know it is critical to taste, season, etc. and some of that can’t be taught. But if you were planning to go on Masterchef (say), which dishes and skills do you think you should have down pat? For example with invention tests I think if you can make a basic pasta, or a basic pastry case, you can make a good enough sweet or savoury dish to get through the earliest rounds.

Another spanner in the works is that I’m vegetarian. I am not against cooking meat or fish products for other people but obviously can’t taste those dishes so it is a disadvantage. I have cooked steak and scallops but I ought to at least master things I can taste and enjoy first of all – which means I’m not worrying about filleting a fish at this stage. That said, I’ve noted how to do it (and how to prep other things like squid or rib-eye beef) from the TV, so I could at least have a stab at it if I had to! But I think much of the joy of food is sharing, so I want to learn things that I can taste and share equally.

So, on my list of skills / dishes to learn (though I already know some, but for completeness), are:

* pasta – plain sheets, but also cut into tagliatelli or used in raviolli or tortellini
* risotto (dare I say, I’m quite good at this already!)
* pastries – short, puff, choux, and maybe filo?
* basic souffle (which includes making creme pat)
* choc fondant
* creme anglaise
* ‘mother’ sauces
* fondant vegetables
* gnocchi
* flatbread

These are all with a view to expanding my skills, but also are items that take no more than an hour to cook. Otherwise bread, macarons etc. would be on there (though again, I can have a reasonable stab at those). Feel free to suggest anything, however basic, that it is critical to master in order to have well-rounded cooking skills.



QUESTION 2: TIPS TO COUNTERACT PHYSICAL DISABILITY, FROM EQUIPMENT THROUGH TO ITEMS THAT CAN BE PREPPED IN ADVANCE

As mentioned, I am physically disabled. In terms of cooking, I’m mostly affected by joint pain and physical strength. For example chopping (wrist weakness), standing to stir (back pain within 2 minutes), lifting a pan and straining it (I’m likely to scald myself) etc.

I have been wondering ‘if I ever went on Masterchef what reasonable adjustments could I ask for?’ and this leads on to how to make things easier at home, of course. For example, my PA chopped a block of chocolate into small chips in advance so I could make biscuits with it; that would have really hurt my wrists for several days if I had done it.

So I am wondering what else I could get my PA to prep for me? Not at the time of need, as that is obvious – but because I don’t know exactly when I’ll have the energy to cook, which things can be prepped a day or two in advance and still be perfectly acceptable?

I know many disabled people buy frozen pre-chopped veg, but I eat a lot of raw, salad and lightly stir fried or blanched food. I don’t enjoy veg that has been frozen or is anything less than flavourful and al dente. (That said, I do already chop and freeze spare herbs, for throwing into sauces.) I heard that diced onion will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days with no issue. Unfortunately my favourite vegetable, fennel, would go brown once cut (unless acid works on it like with apples?) Are there any other chopped veg “gotcha”s?

Anyway, I would be glad to hear firstly of vegetables (and raw herbs and spices) that can be prepped in advance, and how they should best be stored and how long they will last; and secondly of any labour saving devices that you can think would make my life easier in the kitchen. I’m not talking about the cripple’s dreaded christmas present (“how lovely, another kettle tipper!”) but practical things that I might not have considered.

Note that I do have a mandolin and some other gadgets but it still hurts my back to stand and do anything for more than 2 minutes, and a mandolin is a bugger to wash up! But there must be quick and rough solutions involving, I dunno, food bags and a hammer? which I could do with learning to make my life easier.

I think what I truly need is a Thermomix – but unfortunately you get what you pay for and the cost is prohibitive. Does anyone know if the older models which sell for £300 on ebay are worthwhile? This is the only solution I can see to relieve the pain from standing and stirring over a bain marie, or similar…



FINAL THOUGHT:

I presume there isn’t a free online course and community where I can study this stuff and compare notes? Particularly as a screen grab wont tell you if the seasoning was good or the sauce hit the mark? But is there any online community for this? I’m interested in learning at home at my own speed though, not adult classes at my local catering college. (Also, Ive eaten at the local catering college’s Fine Dining Restaurant… Let’s just say ‘er, no’.)

I enjoy learning techniques from Videojug, Instructables and other websites, but where these are submitted by peers, it is hard to know how authoratitive they are, or if I’m missing a trick. I find I learn most from the Australian Masterchef Masterclass programmes, but these are only broadcast once a week, and I would love more in the same vein that I could study.

Lovely foodie, cook and chef friends, please help!

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3 Responses to "What are your tips for a physically disabled wannabe masterchef?"

Lots of people ask me why I love cooking – I can’t understand why you wouldn’t love it – it is creative, satisfying, exciting to experiment, you handle and appreciate nature. I’ve never considered how different my life would be if disability limited by ability to cook. The only chef I know of with a physical disability is Michael Caines – but cooking is physically demanding and many ‘able bodied’ people decide against it as a profession.
Question 1
Forget puff or filo pastry – nice to try once, but 99% of professionals buy these in. I would personally add some Asian ‘techniques’ to your repertoire – tempering and balancing spices for Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking and mastering sweet/savoury/sour/hot for Japanese / Chinese and Thai cooking.
Question 2
As you know, I value my Thermomix enormously for saving time – and the fact the second hand ones are still £300 bears testament to their build quality – when I worked at Le Gavroche, they were using a TM3300 which was the model between 1980 and 1996 – and it has been in professional use every day! I think there may be some finance packages available to spread the cost. That said, other brands also come with many attachments that help chop – but they may only last 5 years or less.
Final thought
Check out Grokker online videos as well! Good for inspiration and some techniques.

Thanks so much Koj! Right, I’ll write puff and filo pastries off my list and add some different techniques.

I’ve been very interested recently in how to balance all the different flavours, and how to fix a sauce that is e.g. too salty or too hot, so that’s something I’ll be working on. I found a website which takes you through pushing a sauce until it has gone too far, and then adjusting it – when I have the energy to do it, I think that will be a very enlightening exercise! I already tweak things like my pasta sauces which I prep and freeze, but I ought to go through it in a more scientific and methodical manner (like I have with things like making gels from different setting agents – which was interesting but not very useful beyond panna cotta and gin & tonic jellies!)

If the older (£300) Thermomixes are still worth having – which from your description, they are – then I’ll definitely save up / petition my husband for one of them. It is a lot of money to spend (given that I barely have an income of my own) so I didn’t want to get one if it was a false economy. But now I think I’ll have to put it top of my wishlist – even though it’s not the latest model. I think a Thermomix would make my life much easier; at the moment I have to ask people to chop or stir things for me, but it’s not the same as being in control…

I’ll look up Grokker videos too (not heard of them!)

Thank you again so very much for taking the time to comment. You are amazing, and I am trying to persuade my family to buy me one of your cooking courses for Christmas… 🙂

Your second question is probably the easier, so I’ll go with that first. Taking your hypothetical “if I ever went on Masterchef…”, I’d have thought it would be perfectly reasonable for you to have an assistant who could do the basic food preparation for you, as you have your PA do for you at the moment. It’s not dissimilar from the assistance partially sighted or blind athletes receive: an assistant to run (for example) in front of them, etc.

So in effect, your assistant would do all the chopping, moving of heavy items, and so on, and you’d direct operations. Indeed, if you’ve watched any of the ‘Iron Chef’ series of cooking programmes, it’s quite common for the (even able bodied) competitors to have a gaggle of assistants to do their chopping, stirring and general dogsbodying for them.

If you can help it, don’t buy frozen pre-chopped vegetables. In my experience, it’s usually the cheap nasty end of the veg spectrum and no matter what you do to it, it just doesn’t *taste* like decent fresh produce. My colleague who has severe pain with arthritic joints swears by an electric grater/slicer. She struggles with her wrists, as you do, and finds grating cheese one of the most painful things to do in the kitchen, but the grater/slicer seems to make short work of most other vegetable matter as well. It has various sized cutter modules so you can julienne carrots with one attachment, then swap to the grater to grate parmesan. I’m not sure of the exact model – think it was a Tefal unit – and not expensive at all (<£100).

I've never had the pleasure of a Thermomix, so I can't comment on that I'm afraid!

Going back to your first question, firstly a disclaimer: I'm a food enthusiast, but I can't claim to be a chef. 🙂
I concur with Koj's suggestion for some Asian spices/marinades; there's a whole world of new ingredients to play with from the East which really liven up cooking. I'm particularly fond of Thai food and I've really enjoyed over the last couple of years learning how to make the 'favourites' from scratch.

Since meat is often reserved for special occasions in many Eastern cultures, Asian food lends itself particularly well to the vegetarian chef.

Since you like watching TV chefs, I'm also going to throw in a recommendation for Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey, which was on TV a few years ago (and is no doubt available through the usual Netflix/LoveFilm/etc. sources). The book published shortly after the TV series has a great list of recipes and guides for making the various pastes and marinades common to Asian cuisine. I must confess I don't usually follow the recipes exactly; there are usually changes I make to enhance or reduce certain flavours according to my own preferences.

I spent much of the first 20 years of my life living in various African and South American countries, so, like you, I've been exposed to a lot of meats you wouldn't necessarily find in the average British store. I'm afraid that does make me something of a carnivore – I enjoy cooking different meats and experimenting with different ways of cooking different cuts. I recently had a go at making kangaroo bourguignon – which worked rather well, if I do say so myself. The downside is that I'm not really a carbohydrate eater so I can't really offer useful comment on things like pasta/risotto/pastries.

I appreciate you're vegetarian and this will be of limited use, but if you are looking for different meats, I've been getting some of the traditional game meats I used to eat abroad from Kezie Foods (www.keziefoods.co.uk) in Scotland.

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