Pulling a fresh, home-baked loaf of bread out of the oven is a moment that will always bring joy and gratification to journalist and copywriter Lydia Wilkins. For many years, Lydia, who has a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), felt shut out of the simple pleasures of cooking, until a chance encounter with Robin van Creveld – aka the Community Chef – lit the path to accessible cooking and nutritional independence.
The 22-year-old explains how she signed up to a Zoom cooking lesson with Robin during the pandemic, only to realise he was the same guest cook who had inspired her at school in her teens.
“The classroom set-up had always been difficult for me. Sometimes, access can be tokenistic – we talk about wheelchair access making something accessible for everyone, but asking that one question isn’t enough to help those with other invisible disabilities or developmental needs.
“In school, we’d have a 15-minute demonstration of what the recipe should look like, then had to go away and replicate it. But recipes are written in such a way that sometimes they are not accessible. What exactly is ‘medium heat’ or ‘seasoning to taste’? It’s like waking up in France and being expected to speak French fluently, and for every mistake, being socially penalised.”
Lydia’s chance interaction with Robin brought hope: “He stopped during his demonstration in an after-school cooking class and provided explanations, gave gentle guidance and paused to answer questions – including mine.”
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Afterwards, Lydia spoke further with Robin, who runs the not-for-profit community interest company Community Chef and believes good food is a fundamental human right. She wanted the recipe for a Mexican dish he’d made, and he handed her his master copy.
“Using Robin’s straightforward recipe, I replicated the dish at home. That was the first time I’d been in a kitchen and felt success,’ she says.
After this encounter with Robin, who runs multiple cookery training and mentoring programmes, including those for neurodiverse students, Lydia began a scrapbook of recipes pulled from magazines and newspapers and practised in the kitchen over the years, with mixed success.
“Most professionals that deal with autism don’t have cooking on their radar at all, but it can be a challenge, as food itself can cause difficulties, such as being too textured or not textured at all, which can impact whether an autistic person can eat it or not.”
During the first lockdown, and now living alone, Lydia sought further support from Assert, a charity local to her in Sussex, and enrolled in a Zoom cooking class. “That’s when Robin’s familiar face popped up. The first thing he made was a pea soup, then bread, and it blew my mind.
“He has a unique way of teaching, and engaged with all eight of us on the call individually, asking specific questions about what hinders us in cooking. Mine is that everything is charred or cindered. He incorporated a bit of scientific information about the way things cook, and that has helped me a lot.
“Burning or undercooking food is something that keeps coming back for people on the spectrum, generally because individuals don’t always know how to tell if something is cooked. It’s an innate thing that people expect you to know, so it’s not often taught.
“I have to learn it to know it. For the first time in my life, I made bread because of Robin, and it actually turned out well because the instructions worked in my favour.’
Lydia and Robin kept in touch by email, sharing recipes and tips designed to aid Lydia’s cooking journey. Now, Lydia is halfway through writing her book, The Autism Friendly Cookbook, which will feature 100 accessible recipes from a variety of different cuisines for a community that has been underrepresented and locked out of cooking for far too long.
“A lot of autistic people will say they can’t cook, but food is so intrinsic to a person’s quality of life and well-being. It feels like a win to me to be able to have that extra bit of independence through cooking, and I’m grateful that Robin’s been a part of that journey.”
Make Lydia’s simple stuffed peppers.
This feature originally appeared in Good Food Magazine, December 2021.