Hope and Equality in an Unvirtuous Kitchen

Richard Kerrigan is a chef working at The Goat’s Toe in Bangor, Northern Ireland. He works relief for mental health support charities, and he has a background in mental health nursing.

It’s difficult to ignore the references to food and cookery in the Bible. From the first bite of that seemingly perfect, shiny apple in Genesis to the Last Supper and the feasts and wine in the New Testament, there are scores of nods to the culinary world. Many are metaphors for knowledge sharing (unless Christ really did feed thousands using a couple of cod fillets & a few baps). Indeed, a lot of Jesus’s teaching and preaching is done at mealtimes & when else would be better to feed the mind than when you are feeding the belly? Folk are more likely to listen if there’s free sandwiches and a pot of coffee. It’s the reason most of us turn up at training days.

The catering trade is no different. Cooks, bakers, kitchen porters and front of house staff will eagerly open their ears and learn; if there’s incentive to do so. The great thing is, you don’t have to be a devout Christian or the son of God to want to pass on your knowledge. I’m a chef. Religion has not found me. I swear and shout and curse those horrible, rude, customers to hell who demand that their lump of meat is cooked more, even though it should be best served pink. But I’m passionate and dedicated and I love the heat of the kitchen. I want to teach others and share my love for a frantic Saturday night service and talk about that feeling when you lift your first hot, crusty loaf out of the oven or perfect the gliding knife skills that separate a delicate sea bass fillet from bone. And I believe, truly believe in my heart, that everyone deserves a chance to experience that same passion and fulfillment in life.

The kitchen where I work provides placements and employment to anyone willing to learn. Straight A students, dropouts, those who are lost and people living with a learning disability. Everyone is welcome. Don’t get me wrong, some new-starts that turn up have obviously got the interest and potential of a limp leek and are standing there in an apron because they accidentally ticked Hospitality & Catering instead of Media Studies on their college application. They’re still welcome. Unless they can change class registration.

Trainee chefs who walk through our doors come from different backgrounds though they nearly all have the same goals; to earn some money, perhaps make a lovely crème brûlée, get a trade under their belt, find a place in society and seek out the holy grail in life that is purpose. The devastating thing is that even in this modern age, 2017AD, some of these candidates are shunned from other potential career paths because of academic grades and different learning styles which society labels ‘disability’. Like the lepers of two thousand years ago.

Well it’s their loss. Because the catering industry has some of the most creative, artistic and innovative minds that this overcooked planet has to offer. And we get to see those minds at work on a daily basis. Social stigma and educational segregation often means someone with mental health needs or learning disability can miss out on some opportunities; it’s everyone’s role as a human to discard of these inequalities and pulverize discrimination. With a big heavy meat hammer. This is what some kitchens are starting to do.

Feeding the keen students with knowledge and skills fills them with hope, a sense of belonging and esteem. I felt it when I was a student. Something clicked or pinged or beeped. Not the oven timer, but rather something in my head. I knew I was in a place I could express my creative side and get my daily bread at the same time. That hope is now seen on the face of others. The new batch. And they, in turn, see that hope and delight on the face of customers as they loudly chew and smack on their fishes and bread.

There are certainly more honorable and admirable vocations in the world but there’s something special about being a cog in a well olive-oiled kitchen machine. We get to be part of anniversaries, celebrations at the birth of new life and honoring end of physical life, we’re there at first dates and at weddings, graduations, promotions, retirements, family holidays, every reason to use food to acknowledge an important date, a cook is there. Religious times as well. The lepers shunned by society help prepare the grand feast that represents your Saviour, that feeds and nourishes the faithful congregation. It’s at these times that some folk, whose lives are not graced with religion, find their own light, that Holy Grail, a sense of reward and fulfillment.

1 Comment

  1. Frank Clarke

    What a surprising, enlightening and inspirational post. Each word and phrase a reminder of the spell of the creative process and the positive influence a true artisan and mentor may bestow on others. An intelligent and honest account that captures the heart and soul of Christmas.

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