In this new TV series on Channel 4, Michel Roux Jr puts eight out-of-work people with disabilities through a 4-week intensive course to work in the catering industry. They will live together, train together and work together for the 4 weeks. The catering industry is, of course, one the toughest environments to work in: long unsociable hours; tough, demanding chefs to work with; and invariably an environment where mistakes are rarely tolerated. I first heard about this series from The Sicilian Chef, Enzo Oliveri, when I interviewed him a few weeks ago (click here) and who appears in a later episode. He was very excited by what they had achieved in the series, but also told me of some of the challenges the young people had to face.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching the series tonight and I had my eyes opened in quite unexpected ways. With this kind of series, where people with disabilities are put to the test and taken into new and challenging environments, there’s always a dividing line between exploitation and something inspiring. Thankfully, this series shows a genuine desire to help and was totally inspiring.
One is so used to seeing Michel Roux Jr in terrifying mode – for example in Masterchef – but this series allows a softer side to emerge. Sure, he still has standards; he’s still concerned to protect his reputation, but the incredible patience, kindness and care he shows while working with these young people is wonderful to see and I felt great admiration for him.
But of course it was the young people themselves who won the greatest admiration. These are people with severe disabilities, like Dan, a young professional chef who lost his sight 8 months ago through complications of Type 1 diabetes and could never hope to get a job in a kitchen again without Roux’s help. We feel for his frustration; his anger at what’s happened to him. Yet towards the end of the first programme when the charming and delightful Annalie, who has Downs Syndrome, and with whom he’s put to work, collapses in tears, he hugs and reassures her with touching gentleness. Two people have Tourettes. Right at the start of the programme we watch Michel Roux struggle to not react when they shout offensive words at him as he gives his welcome talk to the group, and at this stage there is some humour. Yet later when we see Sophie struggling to control her tics (the uncontrollable movements), it all becomes a little distressing. While Sophie is cooking, so caught up is she in doing something she likes and longs to work at, that the tics are held at bay. But it’s like a pressure cooker and before she can finish a session in the kitchen she has to run out and we see her having a big attack from the build up.
What comes across so clearly and movingly are the daily struggles these young people face. We’ve all heard of Tourettes but how many of us really understand what it means to have it? Watching Sophie’s struggles we see the true effects and what life is like for her. We hear a lot about Autism, but seeing Jack’s struggles and determination to succeed is inspiring. Roux may be educating these people in how to work in a professional kitchen; we are learning a lot about what it’s like to live with disability.
The programme never slips into being patronising. All these young people earn enormous respect as we watch them. I was in awe of their determination; their ambition. We are told at the beginning that they’ll be thrown in at the deep end – and my goodness, they are! How many people without a disability would cope with cooking their ‘signature dish’ for Michael Roux Jr; how many could cope with working a session at Hawksmoor? Yet, with some success – though not 100% success – they pull off amazing attempts. They get through it and they’re all determined to go back for more.
The rise of reality TV has brought some pretty awful, embarrassing and unpleasant programmes to our screens. Kitchen Impossible transcends all the clichés; it’s a genuinely good, serious and inspiring programme. And I’m looking forward to the next two episodes.
Kitchen Impossible is on Channel 4, Thursdays at 9.00pm.