“Things that are scary for you are only there if you can see them. I can't see them. So there is bloody nothing to fear, okay.”
This is how we meet Ian Edwards, one of hundreds of applicants for SBS show The Employables (Wednesdays, 8.30pm or on SBS On Demand), all vying to be one of just six chosen to be mentored in business by Creel Price. The applicants have all faced tremendous challenges to find meaningful employment. Indigenous Australians, immigrants and refugees, the LGBTQI community, the disabled, youth, the elderly, single parents and former prisoners all face a significantly higher incidence of prejudice or discrimination, and a greater chance of being denied employment opportunities.
Thirty year career
Ian inherited his love of food and hospitality from his mother, who was a "wonderful country-style" cook. “Mum cooked for everyone and anyone,” Ian tells SBS. “She just loved bringing people together over a good meal. She cooked her whole life and I was always there, watching and learning.”
Ian started a chef’s apprentice at Alcron in Newcastle at age twenty. His career then spanned almost thirty years in some of the region’s most acclaimed restaurants, including Alcron, The Ambassador Restaurant, Noah’s on the Beach and Duck’s Crossing.
“Things that are scary for you are only there if you can see them. I can't see them."
“I loved everything about a busy kitchen,” says Ian. “It’s fast and exciting and there’s a real sense of purpose to creating a good meal that someone is going to appreciate. Being a head chef and running a kitchen was basically my life. I don’t have my own family, so the kitchen was it.”
A devastating diagnosis
Then, two years ago, Ian’s eyesight suddenly failed. “I had a lot of black spots suddenly appear in my eye, you know, like those floaters. I mentioned it to my colleagues in the kitchen and they all said, ‘Yeah, mate, everyone gets those’, so I didn’t think anything of it, just carried on with my work.
“Then everything was just blurry and I knew I had to go see someone.”
A detached retina in one eye and other complications in both eyes resulted in a devastating diagnosis. Ian was legally blind and was told he would most likely no longer work in a commercial kitchen.
"It’s easy to fall into depression and think you’re not good enough for anything, but it’s just so hard to get a break when you’ve got a disability.”
“I was just shocked,” he recalls of the diagnosis. “It didn’t feel real straightaway, I don’t think I understood the impact of what was being said to me. I didn’t get that it would mean I wouldn’t be able to work, mostly because I just couldn't read the dockets to make the meals.”
Not ready to leave the kitchen
At this point, many of us would hang up our dreams along with the chef’s hat, but Ian isn’t like most of us.
“I didn’t want to give up being a chef, but no one would employ me. I understand that, but I didn’t like it. It was really demoralising to not have work. It’s easy to fall into depression and think you’re not good enough for anything, but it’s just so hard to get a break when you’ve got a disability.”
“I have an idea of opening a café for vision-impaired people like me that want a future in the industry. You know, I want to pay them a decent wage so they can live and open up their life and give them a life.”
Ian decided that rather than walk away from the career he loved with such a passion, he would use his skills to develop a programme to train other vision-impaired people in the hospitality industry. He worked with Ability Links to develop his idea and they connected him with The Employables. Ian will present his concept for The Blind Chef to Creel Price and the team in tonight’s opening episode.
A future in the industry
“I have an idea of opening a café for vision-impaired people like me that want a future in the industry,” he says in the show. “You know, I want to pay them a decent wage so they can live and open up their life and give them a life.”
“I was bloody good at my job and I know I can be just as good at it now. There's a lot that I can teach people.”
It’s up to Creel and the team to decide whether Ian’s idea for a business is worth backing, but one thing we already know is that Ian himself most definitely is.
“There’s no point feeling sorry for myself and sitting around waiting for life to happen to me,” says Ian. “I was bloody good at my job and I know I can be just as good at it now. There's a lot that I can teach people.”
Three-part documentary series The Employables premieres Wednesday 22 August at 8.30pm and then on SBS On Demand.