By Zon Pann Pwint   |   Wednesday, 01 June 2016

A Busy kitchen often resounds with the din of chef banter and instructions shouted over steaming pots and clanging pans.

But in Mary’s Cooking Class, hearing-impaired students operate beyond the noise – these hearing-impaired culinary prodigies use their keen sense of sign and smell to service food from start to finish.

Ten graduates from the most recent class, which graduated in April, will compete in the Myanmar Culinary Arts Competition starting today at Myanmar Event Park.

“We give them a basic cooking course. After the course, we send them to the hotels and restaurant to receive training,” said Maurizio Mandl, the visionary behind the class.

Mandl founded My Red Elephant, a social organisation that operates classes for disadvantaged youth. Through MRE, he began visiting the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf in Yangon, where he realised that many deaf students struggled to find a job after leaving school.

The realisation prompted him to initiate a cooking project for Mary Chapman graduates interested in culinary arts. Since 2013, four classes have come and gone, learning under the tutelage of volunteer chefs over a three-month course.

Students who complete the course usually take part in regular cooking competitions, such as this week’s event. In the past two years, graduates have already won one silver medal and one bronze medal.

“Our aim is to give them a future and to bring them into a society. They can earn money and support their families,” Mr Mandl said.

One such success story is Ko Kaung Nyein Khine, a 24-year-old graduate from the second batch of students who began studying at Mary Chapman at age 11. When Cyclone Nargis hit the country in 2008, he had to leave the school. As Myanmar slowly emerged from the wreckage, his father urged him to find a job that would hire him. He tried cutting hair, even studying at a vocational school, but he knew that the barbershop would not suit his interests.

Then he heard about Mary’s Cooking Class.

“When I visited my school, I heard there is a regular cooking course,” he said, with the help of a sign language interpreter. “Students who took the course had been working at hotels. It caught my interest and I joined in 2015,” he said.

A few weeks after graduating in April 2015, he too started work in the hospitality industry. Working in the kitchen of Kandawgyi Hotel, he has added to the list of MCC alumni currently cooking some of Yangon’s finest food: Other former students work at The Governor’s Residence, Novotel, Chatrium, Inya Lake Hotel, Summit Parkview, Monsoon restaurant, Le Planteur restaurant and La Tartine. Almost all work on permanent contracts.

“If I couldn’t have attended the course, I would spend [all my time] helping my parents at home. I can earn a living now,” Ko Kaung Nyein Khine said. “I discovered my passion through cooking training,” he said.

Mr Mandl said the training is made possible by writing and sign language. Teachers from the Mary Chapman school help facilitate communication.

Ko Ye Lwin Oo, another graduate now working at Le Planteur, said there are other ways to talk to coworkers – including getting them to speak his language.

“Sometimes I just grasp what my co-worker tells me by lip-reading,” he said. “I also taught some of my co-workers sign-language hand movements, such as for tomato and onion,” he said. “Now I don’t have to write everything down so much.”
Cooking: no words necessary

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