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Laser Pointers And Hand Signals: A Deaf Chef In The Kitchen

David Uzzell at work in the kitchen at Marcel's. Uzzell has a written list of daily tasks from chef and owner Robert Wiedmaier at his station, and his ever-present notepad and pencil on the shelf above serves as communication tools for more specific instructions.

Amid the hustle and bustle of the kitchen at Marcel's, a fine dining restaurant in Washington, D.C., one member of the staff is immune to the noise. It's David Uzzell, the 28-year-old saucier responsible for such delicacies as pan-seared foie gras or mushroom mornay sauce.

Uzzell is a deaf chef — a rarity in the vast majority of restaurant kitchens. When chef and owner Robert Wiedmaier needs to get Uzzell's attention while expediting during dinner service, he pokes him in the shoulder.

"David gets poked a lot," says Wiedmaier. "There might be a dent in his shoulder from my finger by now."

It's not all poking, according to Uzzell. "We've come up with some workarounds," he says — or writes, using one of the many notepads that are permanently kept at his station to help with more lengthy communications. Having completely lost his hearing by the time he was a year old, Uzzell is used to having to figure out how to communicate to a hearing audience.

"I've never seen somebody text so fast," says Wiedmaier.

Being hearing impaired in a busy restaurant kitchen means that Uzzell's coworkers have come up with a variety of ways to get his attention over the past few years, from laser pointers to elaborate hand signals. At the same time, Uzzell is now such a fixture in the brigade de cuisine — the French term for the hierarchy of kitchen staff — that they sometimes forget that he's deaf at all.

In fact, sous chef Chris McFayden has a tendency to just talk extra loudly to Uzzell, which the kitchen staff finds amusing — as Wiedmaier quips, "It doesn't matter how loud you are, he still can't hear you."

For Uzzell's part, whether or not he can hear McFayden yelling is less about the noise and more about the lesson. "You have to develop a thick skin," he says of working in a restaurant kitchen. "You can't take criticism personally. It's not about whether or not I'm deaf."

"In a kitchen," says McFayden, "everybody tends to learn when the chef yells at somebody else for a mistake. With David, I have to remember that he's not going to hear me telling someone that they did something wrong; I'm going to have to make a point to make sure he knows."

After graduating in 2012 from Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf and hearing impaired in Washington, D.C., Uzzell had a degree in history but no actual work history to help him to find a job. It's a common problem in the deaf community. According to a 2016 study by the National Deaf Center, just 48 percent of hearing impaired Americans, aged 21 to 64, is employed, either full or part time, as compared to 72 percent of the hearing population.

A friend recommended that Uzzell look for work at Union Market, a popular upscale food court near Gallaudet, whose vendors catered to the nearby deaf community. Starting off as a dishwasher and working his way up through the ranks in a few professional kitchens, Uzzell arrived at Marcel's in 2014 looking for new opportunities. The fact that he was deaf was not a hindrance as far as Wiedmaier was concerned, since he'd already previously employed a deaf chef at another restaurant.

Bottom line, says Wiedmaier, "I couldn't have hired David if he had no taste or sense of smell. Being deaf hasn't stopped him from being a damn good chef."

A combination of lip reading, writing, and hand signals has become de rigueur in the kitchen at Marcel's — but it's not always foolproof.

"When I first started," recalls Uzzell, "there were a few times when I thought Chef was asking for 'sea salt' when he was asking for 'Dijon.' The words lip-read very similarly."

McFayden's predecessor employed a laser pointer, aiming it on the counter at Uzzell's work station to alert him about new orders. In order to help communication run smoothly within the brigade, learning — and even inventing — a certain amount of sign language has become necessary to help convey the subtleties of cooking techniques.

"Sometimes there's just not a sign that explains something very specific," says McFayden. "When David worked at the roast station, that was trickier because there are different temperatures for the meats, like squab, elk, or bison, and timing becomes very important. So we created our own sign language, just for our kitchen."

"Deaf people do have the deck stacked against them — we have to deal with a lot of factors," says Uzzell. "I've been fortunate to be in a supportive and inclusive environment."

While being deaf in a hearing world is a challenge, Uzzell thinks that not being distracted by the noise around him in the kitchen can be a plus, allowing him to concentrate on the minute details that are crucial to presenting a perfectly prepared dish. Says Wiedmaier, "He has a laser focus on his tasks."

Back in the kitchen at Marcel's, the staff loves to joke about the time a new cook was working on the line and couldn't get an order right, no matter how many times McFayden called it out, leading the sous chef to finally yell in exasperation, "We've got a deaf guy that hears better than you!"

While a few restaurants have been highlighted in recent years for hiring deaf employees, notably Mozzaria in San Francisco — which is also deaf-owned — and Fare Well in Washington, D.C., it still remains a tough job for the deaf to land. For Wiedmaier's part, having Uzzell on staff offers a model that he thinks other employers should take note of.

"It's important that we do this as a society," he says, about providing work for people with disabilities. "In my 45 years in the business, I've only had two deaf chefs, but that's two more than most other restaurants have ever had. It's a bit challenging, but it's also worth the challenge. David has become so integrated in our kitchen that we honestly forget that he's deaf; we've all adapted to each other to function as a team."

Uzzell agrees, suggesting that employers be willing to think outside the box when it comes to communication, in order to help the hearing impaired integrate into the workplace. "Don't be afraid to hire us," he says.

For now, Uzzell is focused on helping Marcel's gain a coveted Michelin star, but he still has some advice for those in the deaf community looking to land a job in a restaurant kitchen: "Bust ass, work hard, and keep your knives sharp."


Kristen Hartke is a food writer based in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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