“I have an idea of opening a café for vision-impaired people like me that want a future in the industry,” Ian Edwards says in the SBS documentary series The Employables. “You know, I want to pay them a decent wage so they can live, and open up their life and give them a life.”
With a goal like that, many viewers were disappointed when Ian’s idea wasn’t one of the two backed by entrepreneur Creel Price during the show. However, it didn’t dissuade Ian at all.
“Going on the show gave me back my confidence,” Ian tells SBS Food. “I was always going to make this happen, and the show made me more determined. I left Sydney with the drive to not lose sight of what I wanted to do.”
The Blind Chef opens at Boolaroo
After over 30 years in the industry, most of them served as a head chef, Ian recently opened his restaurant The Blind Chef at Boolaroo Bowling Chef in Lake Macquarie, NSW.
The name was already registered to Ian as a company – ASIC originally rejected the name as offensive, but relented once Ian explained that he was indeed a blind chef. The move down the coast wasn’t something Ian had planned on, but it’s working out well for him.
“I said to my partner at the time, ‘I’m not going to take my cane”, and she said, ‘What, you think they’re not going to notice?’”
“I was looking for a commercial kitchen to use to train people and market some products – stuff that we make like chutneys, marmalades, sweet chilli sauce, stuff like that,” he explains. “It was really difficult to do that up in Newcastle because the rent was astronomical. It was just out of the question to do it.”
'Lake change' works out
Initially when Ian heard that a small bowling club in Lake Macquarie was looking for a caterer, he rejected the idea. The bowling club got back in touch with him, however, and he decided to go down and take a look around.
“I said to my partner at the time, ‘I’m not going to take my cane”, and she said, ‘What, you think they’re not going to notice?’” Ian laughs. “So I went in with my cane and told them the story of The Blind Chef and what I want to do with it and they got on board with it and said, ‘Yes, it’s yours’.”
“I was pensioned off, I was thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to live like this?’ But now, after pushing hard and getting this project up and going, I can live normally now
Ian feels fully supported by the Club and its patrons, who are coming to his modern Australian bistro in droves. “The club hasn’t seen anything like it in years,” he says. “[It’s] a progressive little club. The oldies have a bit of go in them… this mob here, I’ve never seen the longevity in people, they’re up to 92 years old and still bowling.”
Creating opportunities for all
Ian is employing other visually-impaired people in the restaurant. One of the women working with him is just 19 years old and said to him, “I’ll never get a job because no one will give me a job.”
This kind of belief is exactly the reason why Ian wanted to open The Blind Chef in the first place. He says, “If at 19, the biggest outlook you have on life is to be on a disability support pension, you don’t stand a chance.”
Now she’s in the kitchen learning alongside Ian. “I’m hoping she’ll go on to do TAFE and an apprenticeship.
“Even if the people that train with me don’t go on to work in the industry, I’ll have taught them some valuable life skills while they are with me.”
“If at 19, the biggest outlook you have on life is to be on a disability support pension, you don’t stand a chance.”
Knocking down barriers
For Ian, the biggest barrier to people with challenges working in the hospitality industry is the mentality that only the best of the best should work there: “It is changing, but from what I’ve come across, you’re just not given the opportunity.
“I was pensioned off, I was thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to live like this?’ But now, after pushing hard and getting this project up and going, I can live normally now. I can afford to go and do my shopping, I can afford a nice place to live. And I can afford to help others. It’s a win-win situation.”
"At the end of the day, the story wasn’t finished for me. There was no way in hell I was going to stay out of it.”
Ian contends that he’s a bit more reserved in the kitchen these days, and his vision-impairment means it can take him longer to do things that he used to be lightning-fast at, but he’s still got it.
“I’ll never get back to the old Ian, but I never give up.
“I’ve done it this long, I’ve got a lot to teach people, a lot to pass on. At the end of the day, the story wasn’t finished for me. There was no way in hell I was going to stay out of it.”
Watch The Employables now via SBS On Demand: