Pascal Ribreau made his own standing chair with the help of a friend.
This is the story of three chefs and how an auto accident, a fallen tree and a carjacking forced them to figure out how their love of food meshed with spinal cord injury. If we told you they clawed their way back into the kitchen and white hat to the delight and praise of eaters everywhere, that would be a nice fairy tale, but it wouldn’t quite be true. What is true is that none of them gave up the devotion to the culinary arts that was stamped in their DNA. They’re just pursuing it in different ways.
when a car accident paralyzed chef Pascal Ribreau. At 30, Ribreau, a French transplant, was already a minor cooking celebrity. He was famous for his rabbit ravioli at a Montreal restaurant called Allumette and for his apprenticeship with chef Joël Robuchon at Les Roches, near St. Tropez. With his passion for food, it wasn’t a question of if but how and when he would return to the kitchen. After three years of rehab and a lot of hard work, Ribreau still had a following and, soon, financial backers to open the restaurant of his dreams.
Around the same time, in Philadelphia, Rob Hodge was about to come to a crossroads in his culinary career. Hodge had been working in restaurant kitchens since he was 14 and he’d earned an associate’s degree from what’s now called Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts, in Pittsburgh. At 29, he was moving up the ranks at nearby Lino’s Restaurant when he was carjacked and pushed off a bridge. After three months’ hospitalization, the new paraplegic was eager to get back in the kitchen but not sure how, or even if he could. “That was my profession before my spinal cord injury, and I didn’t want to change careers. I love food,” he says.
Rob Hodge can use much of the equipment in his restaurant’s kitchen from his
regular chair and has learned from experience what is too dangerous to try.
“I call them battle scars of the kitchen!”
The final chapter of our story starts four years later and about 500 miles away in New York. In the five years since earning her bachelor’s in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales University, Natalia Mendez had been cooking in several restaurants throughout the city. Then a tree fell on her car, leaving her quadriplegic. The accident didn’t change Mendez’s passion for food, but it did force her to consider new career paths to indulge it.
Natalia Mendez poses with celebrity chef Wylie Dufresne. Mendez is building
a career in food writing.
Ribreau’s dreams came to life in 2002 when he opened Célestin, a high-end French restaurant in Toronto. He served as head chef and co-owner and set out to convince colleagues and the public that a chef could cook fine cuisine from a chair.
Instead of focusing on making the kitchen accessible, Ribreau enlisted the help of friends to design a customized standing wheelchair. With a narrow footprint, a stable base, and an upper-body support belt, the result allowed Ribreau to thrive in his kitchen with minor architectural modifications. “We did not have to move pots and pans to lower shelves, and when I am standing I don’t have a lap to spill things on,” he quips. “I did not modify the kitchen so much as modify how I work within it.”
The restaurant was a success. “At first, there was some media attention about the novelty of the chef in the wheelchair,” he says. “But it was a top restaurant for seven years, so that means people didn’t just keep coming because of the novelty.”
While Ribreau’s dreams were coming true, Mendez was reconfiguring hers. Without the upper-body muscles or finger dexterity to execute much of the needed work, she quickly decided she would not return to the professional kitchen. Still, she wasn’t about to give up on her lifetime love.
The question for Mendez became what to do with her talent and love for food. “I definitely was not detaching myself from the culinary world,” she says. “It’s a part of me and I couldn’t stop if I tried.”
As Ribreau and Mendez took divergent paths, Hodge started a path he knew all too well. But before his former employers would give him his job back, they made him prove himself again. “They knew I could cook, but they wanted to see how well I could execute now that I was in a wheelchair,” he says. They made him cook for them in one of their other restaurants. He hadn’t lost his touch. Soon he was installed at a new restaurant, Ambrosia Fine Dining, an upscale eatery in Johnstown, Pa., where he remains today as head chef.
To be sure, a few modifications were required. First, Hodge managed to secure a standing wheelchair through voc rehab. Then, his employers made sure the kitchen was nearly double the usual width and the walk-in refrigerator was ramped. “We measured everything so I could navigate easily and safely, which was perfect for me because most kitchens aren’t made for wheelchairs,” he stresses.
After seven successful years and many industry accolades — Ribreau’s dream turned into a nightmare. He had an aneurysm and mini-stroke and had to leave Célestin.
Three years later, Ribreau is planning his next return to the kitchen. Mostly recovered, he looks back on losing Célestin
as a new beginning. In March he’s off to France to scout locations for a TV documentary and book about food.
Ribreau would like to have his own restaurant again someday, but until then, he enjoys cooking at home. “At home I do not stand. I have an oven at the right height and a smooth stovetop so I don’t catch my sleeve in the grills,” he says.
Hodge’s return to the kitchen also hit a bump when his new standing wheelchair
broke after just six months. With no help from insurance and insufficient finances to repair the chair, Hodge did what most SCI survivors do: he adapted.
Instead of cooking standing up, he started cooking out of his regular Quickie power chair. “It is a bit more of a challenge. I can’t reach things that are up high as easily, but I can take a broom handle and pull pans off high shelves and things like that. And there are always people around who are happy to help,” he says.
Having his kitchen set up for easy access helps, but he still struggles with tasks like putting food on the service window and lifting hot and heavy dishes. “I have a couple of burns on my legs from when I tried to do it myself,” he says. “I call them my battle scars of the kitchen!”
Now 38, Hodge’s long-term goal is to open a soup and sandwich shop — “a small place where people can come and feel at home,” he says. “I know as I get older my body won’t be able to take on too much, so I keep it simple. But make sure everything is in good taste and of high quality.”
While Ribreau and Hodge jockey to remain in the kitchen, Mendez is rechanneling her passion for food into a career as a food writer. She studies the health effects of different foods and blogs about healthy recipes and natural ingredients. She would like to do more writing about food, possibly cookbooks or restaurant reviews.
She still loves to cook, and relies on “a lot of adaptive tools” in her home kitchen, she says, citing utensils with looped handles for easy gripping, knives with Velcro straps, and Dicem — the material that enables plates and bowls to stick to the table top and not slide away while you’re working with them. She insists cooking remains her “No. 1 passion.”
Hodge eloquently summed up his fellow chefs’ opinions on cooking in a chair. “It might be a little hard and take more time than it used to, but as long as the finished product is still good — well, that is my main concern,” he reflects. “It’s not how you start but how you finish that wins the battle.”
Ben Mattlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer whose memoir, Miracle Boy Grows Up, will be published in August.