‘I was amazed. I was looking at him on stage thinking: Is that my son doing this?’

New cookery competition launched for able and disabled teens

"People with disabilities have so much to offer," says chef Chris Sandford. "They just need a little chance."

Sandford, who has been in the hospitality industry for more than 40 years and has witnessed the lack of representation of disabled people within the industry, founded the culinary ability awards in Dublin in 2005.

And, with a new initiative that has just been launched, Sandford hopes that the buddy-type aspect of the competition will also help to break down social barriers and equip both parties with lifelong skills.

The Rotary Ireland Culinary Ability Chefs event is open to young people aged 14-17 across the island who have a passion for food and a willingness to learn and share.


One of the key elements of the competition is that able young people will be paired with and support a disabled partner in a dual format competition. Initially, the abled and disabled competitors will train separately for their own respective competitions.

The participants will have to submit a menu to which they are given a small budget for. During that process, they will have a cook-off in their school or college and the lucky participants will advance to the next round. At a later stage, they will be brought together with a mentoring chef and the abled competitor will be buddied up with the disabled competitor.

The competition will take place at local, regional and national level, with prizes varying from vouchers to cookery equipment to a real-life working experience in a top kitchen.

Dara Sheridan, 16, a TY student from St Farnan's Post Primary School, Prosperous, Co Kildare took part in the launch of the competition. His mother, Bridget, describes her son as quiet and shy, but says that the competition improved his confidence.

“I was amazed. I was looking at him on stage thinking: Is that my son doing this? Dara wouldn’t be particularly sporty, and sometimes in school it’s all about sport. So it was a chance for him to be involved and to shine for his school. It pushed him that little bit. It proved to him that if you really try, you can do it.”

Bridget notes that the competition’s buddy system also boosted Dara’s confidence and communication skills as it gave him the opportunity to help and work alongside someone.

Dara was buddied up with Tommy O’Malley who also attends St Farnan’s. Tommy’s mother, Josie, says that the third year student was very enthusiastic about the competition as they do a lot of baking at home and “he’s always loved cooking”. She notes that the competition boosted his confidence and independence and was “part of the working steps towards him gaining independence with his condition”.

Official judge

She also said it provides special needs children an avenue to highlight their skills and their ability to do different things. She encourages all children “with any kind of needs or abilities to take part. I think there should be more competitions like this, it makes society a better place”.

Inclusion is an important aspect of this competition that goes beyond the participants as Paul Morton, who is visually impaired, has been named as the first official judge of the competition. Morton was one of the successful participants of the culinary ability awards competition in 2005 and now has over 16 years of experience in the industry.

The competition gives room for participants to learn practical cooking skills and techniques, and it also aims to teach participants how to be eco-friendly and prepare healthy food through a number of educational tutorials.

The benefits are lifelong skills so whether or not you're looking for a career in the hospitality industry, one thing is certain, you'll always be able to look after your fridge, cook well and eat well. For anyone interested in entering the competition or who would like more information about it please contact: Admin@culinaryabilityawards.com

This competition was entered by a number of participants who had a range of special needs such as intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, wheelchair users and people with visual and hearing impairments.

This initiative serves as a way to remove stigma associated with disability, while also serving as a great opportunity for people to understand disability.