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Cooking up a storm in the deaf community

Photo: Mandy and Coco in their pop-up food truck

Keen baker Rhys (16) is interested in a career as a chef, so he interviewed Mandy and Coco, the sisters behind pop-up food truck The Deaf Chefs.

Rhys (who is severely deaf): How did you get into cooking?

Mandy (who is profoundly deaf and uses British Sign Language (BSL)): I studied food at college, and cooking became my passion. Coco and I have both worked in the catering industry, and we wanted to run our own café or restaurant. It seemed like a lot of pressure and hard work, so we thought running a food truck seemed a bit simpler. We liked the idea of travelling around, selling food at different events.

Coco (who is hard of hearing): Growing up, our parents weren’t great cooks, so Mandy and I always cooked! When our mum came home from the supermarket, we’d open the shopping bags and pretend we were on Ready, Steady, Cook! I’ve worked in both cooking and education, and always wanted to have a café hub where we could employ younger deaf people and create apprenticeship schemes run by deaf managers. Most kitchens are hearing environments with lots of talking. I wanted to build a whole business run by deaf people. During lockdown, we had lots of time for reflection. I saw a caravan for sale and decided to buy it and convert it! That’s how the food truck started.

Rhys: What are the main barriers you face as deaf chefs?

Coco: The most difficult thing is all the paperwork involved with setting up a business; things like making sure we’re following the law, paying the right fees and have the right insurance. We’re both creative and like to be hands-on, so we struggle with the business side of things.

Mandy: Yes, the business side of things is quite scary, and it’s hard to find the time to keep up with renovating the van, but I hope it’s going to be very successful. My full-time job is in a kitchen with hearing colleagues, and the head chef shouts a lot, so although I can communicate with them, I have to come up with ways to understand what they’re saying, such as using colours to tell when food is ready to serve. Working with Coco is much easier because we can sign and use more visual cues.

Rhys: Is being deaf an advantage in the kitchen?

Coco: Definitely. The head chef at the restaurant where I used to work said he’d noticed that deaf chefs are more focused on their tasks, whereas my hearing colleagues would get distracted by chatting or listening to music while they work.

Rhys: What’s been your most popular dish so far?

Coco: For our first event, we did a Caribbean-inspired menu. It was during lockdown when takeaways were extra popular so lots of people came. We had lots of good feedback about our Greek menu too.

Mandy: We recently did hot dogs, which were really popular. At Christmas, we did Yorkshire pudding wraps, which were great!

Rhys: How has social media assisted your business?

Coco: We mostly use Instagram, and it’s helped massively. Mandy and I come from a big deaf family – we’re the third deaf generation – and the great thing about being part of the deaf community is that people are so helpful. Lots of people go out of their way to support deaf businesses. The deaf community is powerful.

Rhys: Where do you see yourselves in five years?

Mandy: Once the food truck gets going, we’re hoping that we can travel around the UK and then, if we’re successful, maybe abroad as well. It would be good to get more deaf people involved to create a stronger business.

Coco: I’m passionate about getting the next generation of deaf young people into cooking. I work in a school as a communication support worker too, and I know many young people can feel a bit lost when they leave school. In five years, I’d like our food truck to be at Glastonbury!

Rhys: What advice would you give to any deaf young people wanting to get into cooking?

Mandy: I’d recommend going to college to learn how to cook or doing an apprenticeship. There are so many different opportunities out there to help you learn.

Coco: I’d recommend doing an apprenticeship or getting work in a restaurant. I think you learn more in a busy environment. Successful chefs have to work hard, and deaf chefs have to work even harder. You won’t always get opportunities handed to you on a plate, so find the thing you’re passionate about and keep practising. And don’t give up!

Rhys: Last question: have you ever had any disasters in the kitchen?

Mandy: That cheesecake!

Coco: We tried to make a vegan cheesecake, using dates instead of biscuit as a base, but our scales were broken so the quantities were wrong, so the base didn’t stick together. It was awful! We had to pay our customers back!

Follow Mandy and Coco on Instagram @TheDeafChefs and check out their JustGiving page.