Too gifted for words

01 January 2000
Too gifted for words

In its battle to raise awareness about dyslexia and stamp out the old misconception that dyslexia equals stupidity, the British Dyslexia Association has published a list of famous people with the condition. This list includes figures such as restaurant critic AA Gill, artist Leonardo da Vinci, architect Sir Richard Rogers, sculptor Auguste Rodin and politicians Sir Winston Churchill, Michael Heseltine and John Prescott. What's more, the list also includes the name of arguably the most talented chef ever produced by the UK, Marco Pierre White.

But there is nothing surprising about White's inclusion on the list, according to dyslexia experts. Indeed, it is quite logical that White should be dyslexic, along with other gifted chefs, they claim.

"Dyslexic people are often very bright and usually very creative," says Stephanie Langheim, spokeswoman for the Dyslexia Institute. "It seems to be that because of the difficulties they have with written and numeracy skills, the creative side of their brain overcompensates, and develops more than in other people.

"In the way that blind people develop an acute sense of touch, dyslexic people's forte is to be creative and, therefore, lots of them are interested in cooking, as well as art, film, photography and so on. It's natural that lots of chefs should be dyslexic," Langheim claims.

practical abilities

David Anderson, spokesman for the British Dyslexia Association, agrees and suggests cooking is an obvious vocation for people with dyslexia. "Dyslexic people have far stronger practical abilities than normal, so tend to go into practical fields," he adds.

As no research has been undertaken to discover how many UK chefs are dyslexic, it is impossible to prove that a higher proportion of chefs are dyslexic than in the population at large. However, there is anecdotal evidence to support such a claim.

Apart from their creativity encouraging dyslexic youngsters into culinary careers, Huber and Boland point out that teachers and careers advisers have a lot to do with steering them in this direction when they leave school. "If kids are not good academically, you find schools recommend them to become chefs, particularly as there are so many opportunities in hospitality now," says Boland.

Sometimes this advice is misplaced if the youngster has little interest in food, they warn. But time and again in cases where there is a genuine interest in cooking, they see dyslexic students take on a new lease of life when put in front of a stove.

"I see youngsters getting fired up when they come here, because finally they are really succeeding in something," Boland says. "They suddenly find they aren't at the bottom of the class any more."

Huber adds: "It's the same as for any other youngster - the dyslexics get here and within a year they either like it or leave. But 99% of the dyslexic students who stay to the second year are in the profession for keeps."

Two working chefs who attest to the truth of Huber and Boland's analysis are Kevin Viner, chef-proprietor of Pennypots restaurant in Maenporth, Cornwall, and current holder of the National Chef of the Year title, and David Whiffen, executive chef at Rhinefield House Hotel in Brockenhurst, Hampshire. Both chefs are dyslexic and both say they found school a nightmare because of this.

Whiffen recalls that he was nicknamed "the dunce" and "the thickie" at school because of his difficulties with English. "Letters appear back to front to me, so I often can't make out b and d, for example," he says. Viner, meanwhile, says that when he was at senior school, despite his high IQ and good performance in oral tests, "my English was poor, so I got missed out by teachers and put in the lower groups for subjects."

new confidence

But when both men went to college and started to cook it was a different story, and both found a new motivation and confidence. "Going to college and being the best at something was so satisfying," says Viner. "I'd felt a bit of a failure at school and always wanted to be recognised as not stupid, so college was great. I got named best student of the year," he recalls.

Whiffen relates a similar tale: "At college I was finally doing something I wanted to do, so I had real determination to succeed."

This is not to say that life suddenly becomes easy for dyslexic people when they go on a cookery course, however. Supreme effort and hard work is needed if they want to do well, say Viner and Whiffen.

While he was training, Whiffen says, it would take him about 10 times longer than other students to read and understand a recipe. This meant that while his contemporaries were down the pub, he spent every evening studying. "And in practical demonstrations, I would glue myself to the lecturer. I have to learn from my eyes, so I would watch them very closely," he adds.

Viner's student days were similar and he too spent each evening going over the day's work and preparing for the day ahead. He was so methodical, in fact, that none of his tutors ever realised he was dyslexic.

After training, the hard work continues, and dyslexics also have to find different ways of working in order to progress, say the chefs.

For example, when Viner was made a lecturer at the Army School of Catering in the 1980s, he would spend hours preparing his notes and would get to his classes early to give himself time to copy them on to the blackboard. "I never told anyone there I was dyslexic, so they just thought my English didn't flow that well," he reveals. "If you're dyslexic you have to work twice as hard as other people on written work, but it's not impossible. If you want to do it, you do it."

taking care of paperwork

Now running his own successful Michelin-starred business, Viner says his wife Jane is crucial to making it work, because she takes care of the paperwork. "That helps enormously," he says. "Then, with ordering, I find I can work out what I need in my head and will phone for a delivery without having to write orders or lists."

Menu planning, meanwhile, takes a little longer than it might for someone else, Viner says. He tends to be fine at spelling words he uses a lot, such as tomato and cucumber, "but otherwise I can usually only see about four letters into a word." He adds: "Sometimes I write a word but get the letters the wrong way round. I couldn't close my eyes and picture the word venison, for example. It would take me time to spell it."

As for how Whiffen copes with his job running the kitchens at one of the most prestigious properties in the Virgin Hotel Collection, he says he has moulded himself into it. "I've developed my brain entirely for my job and for food. I couldn't sit down and read a newspaper, but I can order food," he explains. "As for menu planning, that's no problem: I picture what I want to see a customer eating and then write it down. It might take me five attempts, but I want to do it, so I do."

ask for assistance

He says he has also recruited a sous chef who is great at paperwork, and Whiffen is not too proud to ask for assistance with tasks such as budgeting, stocktaking or trawling through the maze of health and hygiene regulations. "I'm employed because I can cook, not because I'm a secretary," he says.

Another top chef with dyslexia, who did not want to be named, says he too has found ways of making a success of his career. "I'm in a big hotel and have five senior sous chefs, so I delegate different aspects of paperwork to them," he explains. "I have an accountant to deal with figures and have learnt to scan-read. What I'm here for is to lead and inspire and move the product forward."

This chef says that despite having to organise his kitchen to accommodate his dyslexia, he actually sees it as a positive advantage. "I tend to look at things in a different, more creative way than other people," he says. "In fact I'm paid to be a consultant for a couple of organisations because of the fresh way I look at things."

However, when asked why he is anxious to conceal his identity, this chef is quick with his reply: "If my name went public, about 50 doors would slam shut tomorrow. People are still ignorant about dyslexia and still think it means you are stupid."

At Thames Valley University, Huber also finds many of his dyslexic students try to hide their problem because of their embarrassment. "One guy I taught got his sister to do his portfolio, but I found out he was dyslexic when I set a test on the spur of the moment," he says.

The British Dyslexia Association's list of famous people - complete with the name Marco Pierre White - would seem to have some work to do yet. n

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