Gustavo Arellano: These chefs-in-training have overcome a lot. Now, they'd like a job

Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES — Shin rolled out the cookie dough. Asia sauteed the onions. Christopher fried the tortilla chips. Richard cooked the pinto beans.

The kitchen at the Arc Los Angeles and Orange Counties in Downey was hopping.

For the past two weeks, the nonprofit's culinary students — seven men ranging in age from 22 to 41, decked out in black chef's coats with metal tags that included their first names and "Future Chef" — had catered breakfast and lunch for a human resources conference. This was the final day, and lunch would be a feast for 50 of chicken tinga, cochinita pibil and bean-and-potato tacos.

The students are all on the autism spectrum. Christopher largely kept to himself. Richard monitored the pinto beans with a timer he assiduously reset every time it went off. Sean mashed the guacamole while an Arc staffer held the bowl. Kristian, the most talkative of the group, needed gentle prodding from the Arc executive chef Bev Lazo-Gonzalez to focus on his job.

Otherwise, they were like any other line chefs in any restaurant kitchen — except they weren't allowed to handle knives.

"I love being able to show their families that they're capable of handling big projects like what we're now doing," said sous chef Virginia Reynosa, 37, who has worked with the Arc since 2013. "They're surprised at what their [autistic family members] can do."


"I'm tough on them because, I tell them, 'I want you to be ready,' and they take it," said Lazo-Gonzalez, 53. Her son Josef is on the autism spectrum and was helping her on this day. Usually, he attends classes at Cerritos College, where he's majoring in music.

Gas stoves roared. Pots clanged. Industrial-sized mixers purred. People yelled out restaurant lingo — "Behind!" "Corner!" "Coming through, hot!" — as Maroon 5 and Selena played loudly from a Pandora station.

Lazo-Gonzalez roamed around to check on everyone's progress. Sometimes, she jumped in to demonstrate techniques: Use regular salt instead of kosher salt on the cookie dough. Knead the pork for the cochinita pibil so it soaks up the citrus marinade better. To cook rice the best way — the Filipino way, according to her — fill a rice cooker with water just below the second knuckle of your middle finger.

Mostly, she offered words of encouragement peppered with "hon" and "love."


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