(Bethesda, MD) – Cooking is an art form that many people enjoy and whether you aspire to be the next great chef or the best home cook you can be, the devil is always in the details. Culinary greatness requires the freshest foods, the right tools, a commitment to quality and lots passion. No one knows more about “what it takes” than Michael Leonard, a kitchen assistant at La Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.
“As a man living with autism, Michael thrives in environments that require routine and meticulous attention to details,” says Jebbeh Givens, a Career Resource Specialist at Work Opportunities Unlimited. “His job is an important one; he’s responsible for prepping the classrooms for the students that come to L’Academie, often organizing and stocking twenty individual workstations, three times a day.”
“Michael wanted a job in his community,” says Givens. “He was referred to us by the Developmental Disabilities Administration. Work Opportunities specializes in breaking down the barriers to employment for people living with disabilities. Michael has significant skills to offer an employer and it was our job to find a work situation where he could contribute in authentic ways. L’Academie – Bethesda was the perfect match.”
L’Academie – Bethesda is the original home of the renowned L’Academie de Cuisine, one of America’s top professional schools in the Culinary and Pastry Arts. “The Bethesda campus is the recreational arm of the culinary school; its where the non-professional cook has an opportunity to learn from the same chefs teaching at our professional culinary school,” says Sederick Crawley, Campus Director of L’Academie de Cuisine. “It’s a wonderful place where people, who simply love to cook, can take their skills to the next level. It’s fun and casual for the students but it requires us to do our due diligence in the classroom, and this is where Michael shines.”
Michael spends his days fastidiously prepping classrooms for students, making sure that every surface is immaculate, that the students have the right tools, that the fresh vegetables and meats are packaged properly and stored at accurate temperatures, he makes sure the inventory in the stock room is accurate and that the laundry is done.
“We have a set of standards that we must abide by,” says Crawley. “When you’re working with food, every detail matters, and Michael pays attention to every detail. We meet each morning as a team, develop a list of tasks to be done and then we set Michael free. He sets his own routine, he’s extremely consistent, extraordinarily focused and he’s always right on the money in terms of getting the job done. I don’t have to worry when Michael is here; he has such a strong work ethic and he’s incredibly honest. I trust him implicitly and consider him one of our best employees.”
“Work is a pretty powerful construct,” says Givens. “It has a way of leveling the playing field. Michael works shoulder to shoulder with his co-workers, often outpacing them. Work also has a way of empowering people and changing perspectives. Michael is more confident and a bit more social; having this job has made a huge difference in his life and in the lives of his co-workers as well.”
“Michael has been embraced and is part of the academy family,” says Crawley. “He eats lunch with us, he communicates with different individuals; if no one told you he had a disability, you wouldn’t know it – it doesn’t limit him at all. People no longer view him as having a disability; he’s just Michael, our co-worker… it seems to me, that’s the way it should be.”