Integration and inclusion in the hospitality industry – Irish Examiner

Chef Chris Standford with students Dara Sheridan, Tommy O’Malley, Padraig Gleeson and Tadgh Rice from St. Farnan’s Post Primary School, Prosperous at the Rotary International Culinary Chef Event in the Killashee House Hotel, Naas. Picture: Tony Gavin
“It can be life-changing,” says chef Chris Sandford. He knows that creating opportunities for disabled people to participate in a professional kitchen makes a huge difference to their lives. 
Sandford is the founder of the Culinary Ability Awards which supports people with disabilities into careers in hospitality. “It gives disabled people the tools to do what they want to do and the majority of people who take part in the Culinary Ability Awards end up in full-time employment,” he says. 
 The Culinary Ability Awards is an international non-profit organisation that Sandford established in Dublin in 2005. Now he and the CAA have teamed up with Rotary Ireland to launch the Rotary Ireland Culinary Ability Chefs event. With an all-Ireland focus, this is aimed at young people aged between 14 and 17 who are interested in learning how to cook. The emphasis is on integration and inclusion – and learning a whole lot of skills on the way.
With the issue of staff shortages affecting the hospitality industry at every level, Sandford believes that there are also opportunities for employers: “By helping individuals with disabilities to fulfil their potential not only are companies gaining wonderful employees, they are also fulfilling their own social responsibility to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace.” 
Breaking down barriers 
The dual-format competition will team abled and disabled young people with a local mentor as they step through the early rounds, learning kitchen skills like fish filleting, butchery, kitchen management, health and safety. “These are all skills that are transferable,” says Sandford. “No matter what they do afterwards, they will have these skills.” 
Some of the training sessions will take place on Zoom, others via video. “Roughly halfway through the competition,  we will pair individuals up,” says Sandford. 
At this stage the abled competitors will work as a buddy to the disabled competitors, supporting their teammates as they prepare for their own contest. “It’s about empowering them, sharing skills and breaking down stigma so that there’s real integration and understanding.”
By focusing on teenagers, Sandford is aware that he is able to take them outside their comfort zones and mix things up. “By getting everyone to work together, we can challenge their perceptions. This is what they will remember and understand.”
Sandford, a Scotsman who has lived in Ireland for more than 20 years, is passionate about giving people opportunities. He founded the CAA because he could see no space for people with disabilities in the hospitality industry. Running competitions in Dublin and Belfast, where participants from groups like Down Syndrome Ireland and Fighting Blindness came together to showcase their skills in a professional environment let potential employers see what they could do. 
For Sandford, the biggest achievement was bringing a team of four disabled competitors to the Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart just before the pandemic hit in 2020. “We were just shy of a medal and were highly commended,” he says proudly.
Taking the model that has proven successful with the CAA, Sandford is excited about the new Rotary Ireland Culinary Ability Chefs event, which is the first of its kind in the world. “I’m a Rotarian as well,” says Sandford. “The idea was that Rotary’s values – service above self – are similar to our own in the CAA, it’s all about doing good in the world.” 
Budding young chefs
Rotary Ireland’s Andrew Cremin echoes this sentiment: “We are delighted to partner with CAA for this event which clearly supports the values of both our organisations. We are looking forward to hundreds of young people entering this competition and we would urge parents, teachers and youth workers all over the island to encourage them to do so.
“We want budding young chefs, abled and disabled from all over the island, north and south, to come together in a safe and fun-loving environment to learn and compete against each other under the guidance of fully qualified chefs,” he adds.  “The buddy or pairing system will be key and we’ll be putting a lot of thought into that.” 
Rotary Ireland has a five-year plan for Rotary Ireland Culinary Ability Chefs. There will be local, regional and national heats, with the finalists getting to do a day’s work experience in the kitchens of Fire Restaurant at Dublin’s Mansion House with executive chef Richie Wilson.
“The winners will get to come back and present the award the following year,” says Sandford. “They will get to share the story of their year. And I’m looking forward to that.” 
Young people interested in getting involved can find out all about Rotary Ireland Culinary Ability Chefs at and enter via their schools or by contacting their local Rotary club. Entries are open now and the competition will start in early 2022.
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