Chef teaches cooking skills to people with mental disabilities

Chef+Harris+poses+with+a+dish+of+orange+chicken%2C+surrounded+by+students+at+Belong+Kitchen.

Mike Marrie

Chef Harris poses with a dish of orange chicken, surrounded by students at Belong Kitchen.

Matthew Godinich, Multimedia Producer

Chef Mark Harris has been working as the main chef at Kinkaid for more than 16 years. 

However, most community members do not know that besides overseeing Kinkaid’s food services, he also teaches people with autism, Down syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome how to cook.

Less than two years ago, Chef Harris was approached about a new startup nonprofit called Belong Kitchen, which aimed to help people with autism, Down syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome explore passions and hobbies in cooking. 

It initially started as a group working in a house kitchen. Once group members gained funding, however, they moved into a commercial restaurant kitchen. This did wonders for the productivity of the organization, Chef Harris said.

 “Instead of doing 50 orders in 10 batches, we could do them all in one,” he said. 

Chef Harris helped the students learn how to use all the special machinery.

One of the best moments he said was helping them find jobs and seeing them smile. 

“The people with autism, Down syndrome and Asperger’s syndrome are all extremely smart, and it’s a shame society still doesn’t recognize it,” Harris said. “Bringing purpose and helping these people with medically diagnosed challenges has helped them see a new world and brought so much joy to my life.”

Serving the mentally disabled has been a hobby of Chef Harris since he was younger. 

Growing up, Harris’ aunt and uncle founded two homes housing 18 to 20 people each to help benefit the mentally disabled.  

“This was during a time when mentally disabled people weren’t even acknowledged; they were just called names,” Chef Harris said.