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Take Back the Kitchen

September 25, 2017

Getting back into the kitchen after spinal cord injury isn’t easy for most – literally and figuratively. In this New Mobility Magazine article, Ian Ruder shares the journeys four people faced learning how to cook again after spinal cord injury.  

Trying to get back in the cooking groove proved frustrating for Minna Hong after she sustained a T12-L1 SCI in a 1999 automobile accident. “Cooking was something I took a lot of pride in before my injury, so I wanted to get that back,” she says. “But when I first came home after discharge, it was just me and my two kids. They were 6 and 8 at the time of the injury, and I had to kind of think about how to utilize this energy? And how can I be as efficient as possible?”

Discovering a simple technique that allowed her to flip food in a pan in a new way helped her realize she would be able to adapt and succeed. “It was one of those pivotal points in my life where I thought, ‘Oh, it is different, but different isn’t bad.’ And I think that specific act kind of helped me solidify that.’

Click to watch Katie Powell, OT, share advice on cooking after SCI.

Unlike Hong, cooking wasn’t a big part of Bobby Rohan’s life before his C5-6 injury as a teenager, and it didn’t become one immediately following his injury. “I relied on my friends. I would grab food at a friend’s house, or I had a roommate who cooked,” he says. Getting married and getting a barbecue grill changed that. “I thought, I can do that,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about chopping and I can just grab it off the counter, take it outside and put it on the barbecue.” Rohan liked the idea of helping out his wife and providing delicious food.  He found some simple grill utensils with rubbery grips to help him handle them and got to perfecting his technique. A few years later his wife gave him a Traeger smoker (combination smoker/oven/barbecue on wheels). The Traeger uses wood pellets of various flavors (mesquite, apple, cherry, etc.) that feed automatically into a firebox by way of an electric augur.

“I didn’t know what the difference would be,” he says. “Once I started using the Traeger, I just fell in love with it. It seemed like it was just easier. It doesn’t seem like it gets as hot, so I didn’t worry about burning myself as much. I like the hobby of sitting around a smoker for six to eight hours or 12 hours, depending on what I was cooking, and getting it just right — so it’s really juicy and flavorful.”

Crockpots are another quad favorite for their combination of ease and flavor. NEW MOBILITY contributor Tiffiny Carlson, a C5-6 quad, owns two and uses both often. She is a huge evangelist for their use and vouches for the crockpot’s ability to handle all kinds of dishes and sauces. “They just come in really handy when you’re in the mood to cook a lot of food easily, and well,” she says. “They also are an easy way to cook because it’s all ‘low and slow,’ the safest way to cook as a quad. I don’t mind high heats but crockpots are stress-free.”

Getting the Right Setup

Whether you’re using a crockpot, getting ready for a BBQ or simply cooking a meal, having a safe place to cut and prep your food is critical. An accessible counter you can roll under is great, but a secure lap tray with a cutting board can work just as well, if not better. “Even though I can get under my counter, cutting on my lap works way better,” says Carlson. Hong recommends finding a cutting board with a lip to keep juices from running onto you. Hong also prefers the added leverage she gets from prepping on her lap, along with the added mobility.  “Having everything ready in front of you so you’re not rolling back and forth is important. Knowing the three points of your kitchen is important. One roll to the sink.  One roll to the cook top and one roll to the refrigerator — like in a triangle. That’s really, really important.”

Just like using the lap tray instead of an accessible counter, Hong sees benefits in not having the most state-of-the-art accessible kitchen. “Let’s say my house was just completely ADA compliant — which it’s not — the minute I step out of that environment, I feel like, ‘Oh my God, I have to relearn everything again.’ It would be great if everything in the world was accessible, but it’s not.” The one accommodation Hong made — and highly recommends — is removing cabinet doors below the sink so you can roll under it and wash produce and such. “That’s huge, but it’s an easy thing to do.”

In addition to the right tools and a good setup, cooking in a chair takes a lot of planning. For quads like Rohan and Carlson, a part of that is figuring out if you will need any assistance and how to maximize it. When he needs to move heavy pieces of meat on the smoker, or if a fire gets out of control, Rohan knows his sous chef (his wife) has his back. Carlson has become a master of managing her attendants. “PCAs can help me prep in the morning and put it on low before leaving, which I love to do when feeling the lazy bug,” she says. “I’ll also make a list of what I need my caregiver to help me with before leaving, like cutting or peeling certain vegetables or opening certain packages that are just too annoying to do on my own.”

If certain tasks are too annoying, Hong recommends considering ways to skip them altogether. “Ask yourself, what is the most efficient way of doing things? Like me, I wouldn’t want to spend time shredding carrots or something like that. I’d just buy a bag of carrots and use the scissors to cut the bag — how much are you willing to do and how much time are you willing to spend? It’s about division of labor and division of time

Despite the extra time and effort it requires, most wheelchair chefs seem to agree the benefits go beyond simply enjoying a tasty meal. What started for Rohan as a novelty has become a passion. He is looking at getting adaptive knives and kitchen gear to help him take on more of the prep. He is also expanding his repertoire with new recipes and ideas. “The reward of watching everybody eat something you made — and something you know is good — is huge,” says Rohan.

Hong also draws great pleasure from sharing her food with friends and family, but points to more personal benefits. “I feel like cooking helped bring some of my identity back,” she says. “Regardless of whether it’s cooking or something else you were passionate about, sometimes people have a tendency to turn that part of their brain off after they are injured, and if something like cooking can help them jumpstart it, that’s great.”

Kickin’ It With Doc

When it comes to cooking, David Doc Robertson has a simple motto, “If I can cook it, anybody can cook it.” Coming from a celebrity chef or your standard TV chef, that might seem a little cliché. But coming from Robertson, a C5 quad who zips around the kitchen in a power chair, it takes on more meaning. “I’m not your normal everyday chef — I’m not even a chef — but I do have a need to eat,” he says.

David Doc Robertson likes to tell people that if he can cook a dish, anyone can cook that dish.

Robertson cooked for himself when he first got out of rehab at Rancho Los Amigos back in the ’70s, but over the years he slowly relinquished his chef hat to his wife, and then, after a divorce, his son and attendants. The loss of independence rankled him. “I’ve had aides go away and tell me, ‘Yeah, I’ll be back in time for dinner around five or six,’ and they show up around midnight,” he says. “When I get hungry, I want to eat right then, not when somebody is ready to fix it.”

Moving into a new apartment with a bigger kitchen that could accommodate his power chair proved to be the catalyst to get Robertson back to cooking. In 2015 Robertson started filming a series of simple how-to videos and posting them to YouTube. Over the nine episodes of “Kickin’ It in the Kitchen,” Robertson shares gritty and practical ideas to empower quadriplegic viewers to take back their kitchens. “The whole purpose is to show what people can do when they’re hungry,” he says.

Robertson does this without the fancy accoutrements TV cooking shows have accustomed viewers to want. His kitchen, while spacious, lacks any accessible modifications, and he doesn’t use any specially-made adaptive equipment. “You don’t have to have all those things and do all that fancy stuff to make a good meal,” he says. His most trusted tool is a spatula he found in a 99-cent store. He uses the spatula for everything, including a replacement for a knife. “I tried using knives, but they are really difficult without your hands,” he says. “Then I discovered this spatula and its sharp end worked a lot easier.”

Robertson uses his trusty spatula for everything from dicing vegetables to flipping eggs to stirring pots. The only tool he may use more is his mouth. He uses it to open jars and containers, peel vegetables and tear bread for a bread pudding recipe. He knows using his mouth in place of a knife may seem unsanitary, but he explains that when you are cooking for yourself, and you are hungry, sometimes getting the job done is the most important thing.

Watching Robertson cook, it becomes clear that getting the job done is his specialty. To crack eggs he simply drops them into a pan, then picks out the shells with a fork. To make cleaning easier, he lines pans with aluminum foil. When he can’t reach the controls for his stove, he busts out a long stick to push the buttons. No matter the obstacle, he seems to have a solution.

He has that same focus on practicality when it comes to presentation. “I’m not going to be like the other chefs and say, ‘oh that looks beautiful.’ I’m not going for beautiful, I’m going for tasty.” This becomes clear watching the satisfaction on Robertson’s face as he bites into the savory sausage-and-egg sandwich he has made at the end of one episode.

Part of that satisfaction comes from having invested the time and effort to make the food. And make no mistake, it is not easy. Robertson edits his videos down to the essential steps but admits that cooking as a quad takes a lot of time and planning. “Just getting things out of the refrigerator takes a lot of time, and that’s assuming everything is where it’s supposed to be,” he says. He makes sure his son knows where he wants key ingredients left so he can get to them when he is alone. “It can be frustrating.”

Always Be Safe

Being safe is also critical. Robertson remembers eating tacos at home on his first leave from the hospital. “We hadn’t had tacos since I was injured,” he recalls. “So my mom made me some tacos, and I had a hand splint that I put on, and I held them up and fed myself. It never did occur to me to set them down, and then when I was finished eating, I had giant-sized blisters on my fingers.” Today he is extra careful to avoid burns and other injuries.

David Doc Robertson likes to tell people that if he can cook a dish, anyone can cook that dish.

He only uses pots and pans with non-conductive handles and rarely uses more than the two front burners at the same time. To tend to the food cooking on the stove, he uses a grilling fork with a long handle that allows him to keep his hands away from the heat. Regardless of how many burners he uses, Robertson always keeps the fire low. His biggest safety advice is to know your limits. “Safety has to be your main concern, he says. “Don’t try to cook too many things at once.”

After years of eating food the way other people liked it, Robertson is loving being able to enjoy his meals just how he wants them. “I know exactly how I want to make my eggs and how I cook my sausage,” he says. “It definitely tastes better.” Earlier this year he moved beyond YouTube to record a regular 30-minute show for a local TV station titled “Kitchen Independence.” With a slightly more polished presentation, Robertson continues to show the same indefatigable approach to conquering the kitchen, and he still sports his trademarked yellow polo shirt. “I figure if Tiger Woods can wear red every Sunday, then I would wear the yellow. I think I look good in yellow.”

  1. So far the show has been well received. “I guess they liked it, because they’re currently re-running it right now,” he says. He hopes the show and his videos will encourage more quads to try their hands, however limited they may be, in the kitchen. “I want to show that the more you know, the more you learn, then the more you can do for yourself,” he says. He’s looking forward to filming a second season, with the hope of inviting some celebrity chefs. His dream would be to challenge chef Bobby Flay, the host of Beat Bobby Flay on Food Channel, to a quad cook-off. “Have him come do what I do?” asks Robertson. “I don’t think he could do it.”

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