- August 28, 2021
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Joshua Barber is one of 13 fledgling Connecticut chefs to receive a $2,000 scholarship recently from the Max Cares Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Max Restaurant Group. The award is given to culinary arts students who have distinguished themselves in their studies and have a promising future.
If someone told Barber five years ago he would get this honor, he wouldn’t have believed them. In early 2016, he was afraid he had no future at all. Barber had just been told he had three years left to live.
“I had epilepsy my whole life, really bad, grand mal seizures. By 2016, my seizures were so bad. I was on so many different meds. I wasn’t working. Every day I would wake up so messed up. I was stressed out. I kept forgetting things. It was frightening,” Barber, 36, said.
But in 2021, the Brooklyn, Connecticut, native who now lives in North Windham is healthy and thriving. He’s a standout in Manchester Community College’s well-respected hospitality management program.
“When you’re with him, you pick up on the passion he has, the love he has for cooking,” said Bill Williams, one of Barber’s teachers at MCC. “For him, it was more than just cooking. It was a tool for him. It helped him work through his frustrations with his health. Cooking is almost a remedy.”
Barber admits that himself. “I couldn’t do anything after my surgery. The only way I could communicate with people was with food,” he said.
All his life, Barber’s epileptic seizures were so frequent and violent that he lost many friends. “People got afraid of my seizures,” he said. When he was 10 years old, the subject of brain surgery came up, but his parents nixed it. “It was really risky. They said I could wind up with mental retardation,” he said.
Barber moved forward with life anyway. He played soccer, tennis and lacrosse in school and graduated from Woodstock Academy. He did well at his jobs, in customer service, detailing cars, working in grocery stores and at a wholesale food warehouse. He got married. He had a daughter, Josalyn, now 11.
But the seizures, and fear, always hung over him. So in 2016, at age 31, when his doctor told him he had three years to live, Barber finally agreed to that risky surgery. The procedure came in three phases.
“The first surgery, they had to remove part of my skull and put a titanium plate on that spot, with monitors and electrodes on it to tell where the seizures were. The second was EEGs and a stress test,” he said. “The third surgery, they were cutting tissues in my brain.”
After that third surgery, he took a long time to wake up, terrifying his wife and his mother. When he did wake up, the two women were standing by his bed, both in tears. “I had breathing tubes. I was restrained. I think they were afraid I’d wake up and go into shock. I was scared beyond belief,” he said.
After a few weeks in recovery, “on a lot of meds,” he was allowed to go home. He was severely limited in what he was allowed to do, spending almost all of his time at home. So he started reading cookbooks, started a Facebook page — Backyard Cooks Gone Wild — and started teaching himself to cook.
During his recuperation, he and his wife Alicia had a son, Cody, who is now 3. “I give my wife a lot of credit for sticking by me,” he said.
When he was allowed to do so, Barber enrolled at MCC. MCC teaches students how to prepare many dishes. But Barber’s heart belongs to barbecue. He rarely goes anywhere without barbecue smokers and other equipment in his car. Wherever he goes, he is ready to cook a chicken, a brisket, a rack of ribs.
His barbecue mettle was tested early at MCC. He had enrolled and hadn’t taken any classes yet. The school had a get-together picnic in Farmington with new culinary arts students and instructors. It was an outdoor gathering on a hot summer day and dozens of people showed up. But who didn’t show up were the cooks who were supposed to prepare the meal. The food was there, just with no one to cook it.
“I had my barbecue bag in my car all ready to go. I had never cooked for a big crowd before but I had read a lot of books. So I got going. It was about 110 degrees and I was working over the fire pit,” he said.
Williams was there that day. “It was so unexpected. Suddenly everybody turned around and there was Josh starting the pit up and starting to cook the chicken. We just let him take charge. He cooked the entire barbecue for everybody in the group,” Williams said. “It was hotter than hell. Everybody else was in the shade in the pavilion and he was out there by himself.”
Since then, Barber has excelled at MCC and has taken his love of food into the world. He was part of the crew handing out free food at Rentschler Field during the coronavirus pandemic. He volunteers in the community kitchens at Bloomfield Congregational Church and Manchester Area Conference of Churches. MACC’s nonprofit restaurant, Bistro on Main, has benefited from Barber’s skills.
Barber’s dream is, like Bistro on Main, to combine cooking with community service. “That’s my main goal, helping people.”
Until launching into the world, Barber has a few more MCC courses to go before he graduates. He knows he will see it through, even thought he has been told that there is a chance his seizures may come back.
“That idea scares me, but I can’t let that control me,” he said.
Susan Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.