Story and visuals by Jim Tuttle
As the restaurant doors opened, dozens of people filed in, eager to try a four-course dinner three months in the making. They would not be disappointed.
The meal is the culmination of a new 12-week training program called Not Your Typical Culinary Academy based in Gilbert, Arizona. It was planned, prepared, and served by 12 young adults with developmental disabilities, including many on the autism spectrum. Some have never held a job, but now they are running a restaurant together.
“These guys have done some crazy stuff, like amazing things that I’m sure they didn’t think they’re capable of,” the program’s executive director, Chef W Reith, said during a brief speech before the dinner.
“Tonight’s pretty special. All this hard work comes down to right now — four courses tonight made from scratch.”
The theme of the night was “Not Your Typical American,” featuring traditional comfort foods, like hot wings, macaroni and cheese, barbecue meatloaf, and fried chicken with biscuits. The head chef overseeing the evening’s meal was 19-year-old Skylar Callanan. She was elected by her classmates to lead this culinary effort based on her performance throughout the program.
“Five years ago, if you told me I’m gonna be a leader, I’d be like, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” she said. “I would just back away and get really scared. But I feel like I have accomplished a lot over this course and it feels really good to be a leader.”
Callanan said she finds working through a recipe or chopping ingredients calming because it allows her to immerse herself and focus on the task at hand. She likened the culinary arts to drawing.
“It’s kind of like creating your own peace,” she says, “I really like to create ways to make the food presentable with the colors and the texture and the presentation.”
The need for programs like Not Your Typical Culinary Academy to bridge a gap in training for young adults with developmental disabilities is increasingly urgent — in the U.S., one in 59 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control. The disorder refers to a broad range of conditions that can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
More than half of young adults with autism remain unemployed in the two years after leaving high school and nearly half of all 25-year-olds on the spectrum have never held a paying job, according to Autism Speaks, Inc.
The culinary job training program grew out of Not Your Typical Deli, an award-winning Gilbert restaurant and bakery that Reith co-founded in 2016. Travel + Leisure named it “Best Place to get a Sandwich in Arizona,” and Yelp named it one of the Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S. in 2019. As a fundamental part of the deli’s mission, a majority of its employees are people with developmental disabilities. A sign in the front window reads, “Embrace Minds of Different Kinds.”
Reith believes high unemployment rates among people on the autism spectrum are largely due to a stigma surrounding people with special needs, and a tendency for potential employers to underestimate what people with disabilities are capable of. “It’s amazing when somebody gets a chance and has the right support, what they’re capable of accomplishing in life.”
Since it opened, the deli has consistently received more job applicants than the number of positions available, Reith said. Tuition is completely covered for eligible students through Arizona’s Vocational Rehabilitation program.
“These families have a lot on their plates. It’s expensive — therapies, doctors, what have you,” Reith said. “And I don’t think it’s fair to put a private pay cost on there either, because the next Emeril Lagasse with special needs may have a family who can’t afford it.”
Allison Kolanko co-teaches the course with Reith. Before coming to work at the academy, she spent more than 10 years teaching students with autism in the Gilbert Public Schools, the local independent school district. She also coaches other teachers in instructional strategies for students with special needs. Reith approached Kolanko about collaborating after she visited him at the deli to get his perspective on existing job training programs.
Together, the pair spent about 18 months building the program before welcoming the first class. Reith developed a curriculum based on the culinary aspect of the course, while Kolanko focused more on “soft skills,” like communication, problem solving, managing emotions, resolving differences, and navigating interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
“I really started to become passionate about the transition from graduation to the real world working life,” Kolanko said. “I wanted to be a part of helping in any way that I could to teach strategies to get jobs, have a meaningful life, and contribute to this world.”
In addition to the overall course curriculum, each student is evaluated individually to identify key areas they needed to work on and the best strategies to do so, Kolanko said. She observes each of them throughout each class and keeps data to make sure everyone stays on track and makes progress.
“Everybody’s story is different, everybody’s reactions to things are different, everybody’s issues are different,” Reith said. “It’s a spectrum. That’s why it’s really hard to juggle.”
With classes held four hours a day, five days a week for 12 weeks, there’s plenty of time for everyone’s individual personalities to come out. And sometimes that results in conflict.
Much of the cooking and cleaning is done in groups, so there’s plenty of practice in terms of working with other people, which doesn’t always go smoothly. Occasionally, someone says something hurtful or doesn’t seem to be doing their share of the work. Whenever an issue does arise, Kolanko tries to use it as a “teachable moment.”
“Sometimes there can be tension between the groups and, for instance, people might feel like they’re being bossed around,” she explained. “So we work on leadership skills and how we can be leaders without being bossy, and make sure that everyone’s doing their part with the team.”
Other lessons include learning about body language. Classes that focus on physical cues help students express themselves more effectively while also recognizing how others are feeling. The class also teaches problem assessment, and asks students to determine how serious certain problems are, and rank them with a score between one and five to help them choose an appropriate reaction.
Several students in the program, like 29-year-old Michael Kunz, are employed in some capacity, but enrolled in the program in hopes of enhancing their skills or growing job prospects.
Kunz has worked part-time at the same fast-food restaurant for about seven years, where he cleans tables, takes out the trash, and collects dirty trays to be washed. He says he’s asked his managers for more working hours and additional responsibilities, but nothing seemed to change. He said his time at the academy gave him a new perspective on the situation.
“I learned at times that you do have to advocate for yourself,” Kunz said. “It’s important to know whether you do bring value to them, because if you don’t, they might not be worth working for.”
Kunz says that for several years, he was content working a few hours a week cleaning up at the fast-food restaurant. But now he wants more, and part of that motivation comes from wanting to be more independent.
“I still live with my family,” Kunz said. “I’m trying to pick up skills that would be necessary if I were to live on my own.”
After sharing his goals with Reith and Kolanko, Kunz was offered a position at Not Your Typical Deli, and began working there after completing the class. He’s starting out as a dishwasher, and hopes to transition to server if everything goes well. During the academy’s final four-course dinner, he got his first opportunity as a server.
After the dessert course of cheesecake and root beer floats had been served, Reith reflected on the academy’s past three months. “You know, these guys did a wonderful job, and they’re so hard on themselves because they want to be so perfect for tonight, but the fact of the matter is that they were out there doing it and that is perfection to me,” Reith said. “These guys have just grown so much, it just makes my heart sing.”
At the end of the night, all the students were given certificates of completion to the applause of their friends and families. Head chef Callanan took hers with a smile.
“I’m very grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “And I’m really excited for my future.”