Deaf Chefs Compete

Culinary arts instructor Vernon McNece shares a light moment with his students using American Sign Language.

What’s the Sign for Mozzarella Balloon?

Culinary education thrives at
the California School for the Deaf

By Anna Mindess | photos by Nick Wolf

The students’ goal is to create a prize-winning, modernist take on a caprese salad.
(The mozzarella balloon is just to left of and behind the basil leaf.)

High school students dressed in chef’s whites scurry around the kitchen preparing an ambitious Modernist Caprese Salad composed of mozzarella balloons, tomato sorbet, and colorful sliced tomatoes garnished with fried basil leaves, balsamic vinegar pearls, and powdered olive oil. Whenever they struggle with the exacting techniques required for this challenging creation, culinary arts instructor Vernon McNece—who delights in the gels and gadgets of molecular gastronomy—patiently clarifies, demonstrates, and corrects.  

One young woman fries basil leaves in sizzling oil. “Just a few seconds,” cautions McNece, reminding her that thin leaves burn easily. Another budding chef uses a syringe-like device to squeeze droplets of a balsamic vinegar and agar-agar mixture into a tall glass of chilled oil. McNece shows how to position the device at just the right height so the mixture will form little balls that gently sink to the bottom: Too high and the resulting dark pearls will flatten out. The tiny orbs will be served on the plated salad next to a pile of powdered olive oil for a modernist riff on a classic vinaigrette.

Elsewhere in the kitchen, two students struggle to inflate balls of mozzarella with roasted tomato “air” propelled by nitrous oxide from an iSi whipper, a favorite tool of molecular gastronomists. When they call over their teacher in frustration, McNece recommends warming the cheese a bit longer in hot water until it’s as pliable as bubble gum before flattening and then inflating it. He encourages them to keep trying.

Other students decorate plates with zigzags of liquid basil gel and artfully arrange slices of heirloom tomato as McNece calls everyone’s attention to a large timer, its red numerals showing the minutes and seconds remaining in the 60-minute trial. “It’s a timed competition, so there is a lot of stress and pressure,” McNece acknowledges, emphasizing the importance of practicing before the event.

While this scene could be playing out at most any culinary training kitchen, this setting is unusual in one striking way: All conversations here take place in American Sign Language (ASL). As a food writer and certified sign language interpreter, I’m able to follow the details of the discussions here in the F.E.A.S.T. (Food Education and Service Training) classroom at California School for the Deaf (CSD).

An additional insight on how members of this population refer to themselves: The term “Deaf” is capitalized as an expression of pride in that identity. Lowercase “deaf” is used only when focusing on the physical/audiological aspect. Terms such as “hearing-impaired” or “hearing challenged” are seen as insulting.

Left to right: Maribel Vargas decorates a plate with liquid basil gel. Instructor Vernon McNece enumerates three tasks his students must complete. Milana Boren inflates a balloon made of mozzarella.

Cream of the Crop in Deaf Education

The Fremont campus of the 157-year-old California School for the Deaf, with classes from pre-K through high school, is regarded as one of the top schools in the nation specifically designed for deaf children. These are not pitiful institutions where the children are kept isolated from the world. Rather, in the hearts of Deaf people, they are revered and cherished sites of enculturation.

As Dr. Thomas K. Holcomb, professor in the Deaf Studies department at Ohlone College in Fremont, explains, “For many Deaf people, Deaf schools are a respite from a bleak existence at home where communication is practically non-existent and educational and social opportunities severely restricted.” Holcomb, who is Deaf himself, adds, “At schools like CSD, deaf students are exposed to solutions needed for an effective lifestyle in a world populated mostly by hearing, non-signing people. These solutions provided by Deaf adults include signed language, social interaction strategies, and positive identity formation.”

Achievement and Community Through Competition

The students in CSD Fremont’s well-equipped kitchen/classroom are preparing for the 8th Annual Deaf Culinary Bowl, during which five Deaf schools from four states will compete in an Iron Chef–inspired cook-off. Each school’s team prepares and plates an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, each of which includes specified ingredients (like tomato for the appetizer) chosen by the host school.

This tasty tournament follows a long tradition of diverse competitions in the Deaf community. Contests like the 20-year-old National Deaf Academic Bowl, held annually at Gallaudet University (the only university in the world specifically geared toward Deaf students) are seen as great motivators toward excellence as well as opportunities to socialize. Sporting events in the worldwide Deaf community range from school football games and neighborhood bowling leagues to international tournaments. The Deaflympics, a weeklong competition held every four years since 1924, draws thousands of spectators. The last contest, held in Samsun, Turkey in 2017, attracted more than 3,000 Deaf athletes from 93 countries. Although each country has its own sign language, similarities in worldview and experience with visual communication allow Deaf signers to converse more easily with their foreign counterparts than hearing people who speak different languages.

Left: Vanessa Gonzalez asks a question. Middle and right: A syringe squeezes droplets of balsamic vinegar
and agar-agar into chilled oil, where it forms into balls.

Family Environment Matters

Among Deaf people, McNece hails from an enviable background: His parents and three siblings are all Deaf, which means he had instant and effortless communication in ASL at home. By contrast, at least 90% of Deaf people are born into hearing families. Depending on the advice their parents receive from medical professionals, these children may not be exposed to sign language until they enter school, which often results in language delays and other problems. The Deaf community maintains that ASL is their natural language, and CSD promotes a “Deaf-centered environment” employing a Bilingual-Bicultural approach to help its students master ASL and English.

McNece was born in Southern California, where his father worked as a machinist at Hughes Aircraft for 22 years before being laid off and relocating his family first to New Mexico and later to Missouri. On finishing high school, McNece moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Gallaudet University, where he majored in chemistry until he dropped out. For much of the next 10 years he worked as a banquet chef, pastry cook, and line cook. On discovering that there was such a field as “food science,” he returned to school with a new appetite for learning and earned degrees in culinary arts, pastry, culinary science, food in business and industry, and food service management, as well as a master’s degree in career and technical education.

McNece explains to Vargas how to plate her dish.

TV Chefs and Workplace Barriers

CSD senior Milana Boren takes a moment from inflating the mozzarella balloons to explain that her goal is to be an early childhood education teacher. But she loves cooking classes and imagines being a pastry chef as a second job. She appreciates McNece: “He is creative and has many skills to share. He also challenges us to improve and makes us laugh.”

As the clock shows just three minutes remaining, the last student still struggling to decorate her plate with artistic green basil zigzags using an awkward squeeze bottle finally gives up in tears. McNece repeatedly encourages her to try again. With only a minute left on the clock, the young chef overcomes her zigzag block and quickly finishes arranging her appetizer plate.

Like many young people influenced by today’s food-obsessed television programming, some of McNece’s students dream of becoming chefs. McNece aims to inspire his students to reach their goals, but knows from personal experience the roadblocks his Deaf students will face as prospective employees in the competitive food industry.

One of his strategies is to show his classes the movie East Side Sushi, in which a working-class, Latina single mother dreams of becoming a sushi chef. The film serves as a jumping-off point to consider the road to employability. McNece invites discussion on the qualities that helped the main character succeed, such as being a self-starter, showing respect, working as part of the team, and having patience.

But McNece knows from personal experience that his students might excel in the workplace yet have difficulty realizing the advantages of their talents. He describes a period when he interned at a food lab analyzing and developing formulas for a range of commercial food products. As is often the case for a sole Deaf person in a completely hearing environment, there is a sense of operating in a world apart. It took some time for him to realize that his coworkers’ smiles, nods, and thumbs-up were praise for what they regarded as his exceptional talent in creating the formulas in record time. When he was approached to apply for a position as a culinary instructor at the Missouri School for the Deaf, he accepted the offer and left the lab in order to work in a signing environment where he would have full access to communication. He transferred to CSD in 2016 in order to move back to California.

McNece entertains many ideas for future endeavors, including pursuing a Ph.D. in education, starting a food business, or developing an interactive app to help Deaf students and other visual learners through a photographic or video approach to cooking and vocabulary. But for now, he is content in his current role nurturing his students (and helping them win).

The Power of Trying Again

As I learned a few weeks after my visit with the F.E.A.S.T. students, the results of the 8th Annual Deaf Culinary Bowl were disappointing for Fremont, in part because those temperamental mozzarella balls refused to inflate. The host school won the competition.

“Even though our team lost,” says McNece, “the student who struggled with the basil gel zigzags was selected as one of the ‘all-star chefs’ of the competition. That really meant a lot to her. I could see the difference in how she carried herself after that. In 2018, Fremont will host the Culinary Bowl again. Next year, we plan to bring that trophy back home.” ♦

Anna Mindess writes about food, culture, travel, and immigrants’ stories for KQED Bay Area Bites, Oakland Magazine, and Paste Magazine. She works as a sign language interpreter and has written books on Deaf culture. In her spare time, Anna collects enlightening global food insults. She’s on Instagram @annamindess or @foodinsults. Find her stories at eastbayethniceats.com or annamindess.contently.com.

Nick Wolf is a portrait and commercial photographer based in Oakland. When he is not furiously working out a new concept or staring at lighting diagrams, he’s most likely tinkering away at a new cocktail recipe or eating ramen. nickwolfphotography.com, hello(at)nickwolfphotography.com

 

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