Restaurant Business

May 1, 2002

Great Scott

Can a business as physically demanding as restaurants possibly make room for paralyzed chefs? One in New York certainly thinks so.

Andrea Strong

MAY 01, 2002 -- From the time Lawrence Scott could walk, he wanted to cook.
By age two, the toddler had become a virtual appendage to his mother, always at her side in the kitchen, getting his hands into everything. His enthusiasm was such that soon she enrolled him in a cooking class. He was six years old.

In 1991, Scott graduated from Syracuse University with a business degree, but the culinary bug wouldn't go away. And so he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, which landed him an externship at the famed Bouley in New York City. Scott's rise was a quick one: Soon he was in Paris, cooking with Michelin two-star chef Christian Constant at the Hotel de Crillon. Two years later, he was in the kitchen at the Michelin three-star Lucas Carlton. Then an important call came from Monte Carlo. World-renowned chef Alain Ducasse wanted him to cook at histhree-starred restaurant Louis XV.
Today, some 30 years after the 1st grader mastered sandwich-making ("You have to spread the mayonnaise across the entire slice of bread and not just give it a quick schmear," he says), Scott is still on the rise. He now runs his own restaurant -- Lawrence Scott on New York City's Upper East Side -- and has won praise from the critics -- "everything yo
u'd like in a dining experience, and more," said one. Scott is still cooking, and still at the top of his game.

It's just that if he wants to reach his lower-level kitchen, he waits for the lift. And instead of standing and facing the stove, he sits. He has no choice. Three months into his job with Ducasse, he was struck while riding his motorcycle on his way home from work. He woke up in a Monte Carlo hospital with a severed spinal cord -- a paraplegic at age 27. "I was alone. I was screaming in pain," Scott recalls. "I remember them telling me that I was paralyzed. It was horrifying."

If Scott's comeback story is inspirational, it's equally instructive. Because while his long road back to chefdom was personally grueling, it wasn't made much easier by the industry he'd dedicated his life to. His efforts to find a chef's post after his accident came to nothing. Scott is back in the kitchen, but it's a kitchen he created for himself, begging the question of just how inclusive an industry that prides itself on inclusiveness really is. At a time when finding qualified labor has caused restaurateurs to reach out to just about every minority group imaginable, do disabled chefs fit into that picture? The experience of Lawrence Scott suggests that, for the time being, they pretty much don't. But it also suggests that they can -- and with greater ease than many would imagine.

Following his accident, Scott was in and out of consciousness for days, but he remembers the day that Ducasse paid him a visit at the hospital. "Ducasse came by, and he told me that he himself had been a sole survivor in a plane crash. He was in a wheelchair and he didn't think he could walk again. He wished me well and said to keep in touch. I was very touched that he came to see me." Shortly thereafter, Scott left France and headed home to New York.

At first, Scott gave no thought to the possibility of returning to his profession. In New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, he battled depression, and even considered suicide. Weeks passed, however, and his mind began to change. "I realized I wasn't going to end my life," he says. "I was too proud, too arrogant. I had to make the best of my life."

Three months later, he was discharged from the hospital. Before he left, he thanked his team of doctors, nurses, and physical therapists in the best way he knew how -- with food. He persuaded a couple of key personnel to let him into the hospital's kitchen, and cooked a huge meal for his support crew. It was then that he knew that he would be back in the kitchen again.

As soon as Scott returned home, he got to work. At the gym, he worked on his body -- lifting weights, stretching, and strengthening his muscles. And in the kitchen, he slowly taught himself to cook again -- chopping, dicing, searing, sauteing -- everything relearned from his new wheelchair height. Three years, the New York City marathon (handicapped division, 2nd place, 2 hours, 13 minutes), a national bench press competition (1st place, professional division), and countless home-cooked meals later, Scott felt ready to cook in a professional kitchen once more.

But as he discovered, restaurants weren't too keen on hiring someone with a three-year employment gap on his resume. Could he simply have explained his accident? Scott wasn't sure it was worth the risk. Would a restaurant owner take a chance on a wheelchair-bound chef working out in the frantic and cramped confines of a fine-dining kitchen? Would an owner only see expensive accommodation measures instead of his potential? In the end, Scott decided to leave out any reference to his handicap. He sent out a flood of resumes -- and still received no response. Despite his considerable credentials, Scott was not in demand.
For a time, he took a family friend's advice and landed a job as a private chef. "It got me back into the kitchen and cooking," he says. "But it wasn't satisfying the urge and need to do fine dining and be creative." Before long, there seemed only one route left: Open your own place.

Scott was fortunate: He not only had his parents' emotional support, but could get their financial support as well. He opened Lawrence Scott restaurant, featuring a kitchen he designed himself, on July 28, 2001.
Scott's presence in Lawrence Scott is hardly in name alone. Every night of the week he either expedites or cooks on the line (the restaurant produces between 50-75 covers a night), working with a team he says views him as the chef, not the chef in the wheelchair.

"Maybe in the beginning they looked at me differently," says Scott. "But after a very short time, they didn't even see me as being handicapped. I ask them to help me when I need it, and they do. I am good to my people. I expect to get the respect back from them that I give."

He gets it. "Larry is the most fair chef I've ever worked with," says Fredrick Piccarello, Scott’s sous chef. "We just work around him. It's no problem."

One very basic reason it is not a problem is that all the kitchen equipment is standard -- nothing is built for a chef in a wheelchair. The counter height is standard; Scott shoulders up to it and cooks at chest level. The only difference from most New York City restaurant kitchens is that there is enough room behind the line for a wheelchair to maneuver -- added space that, as it turns out, everyone appreciates.

"I designed the kitchen like every other kitchen because if I made it comfortable for me, it would be uncomfortable for everyone else," Scott says. "It's easier for one person to adapt than for an entire kitchen staff to adapt."

In an industry with a serious shortage of skilled labor, Scott's handicap adds a new wrinkle to a personnel landscape that is already quite diverse. Indeed, in recent times restaurateurs have staffed their kitchens with the deaf, the mentally challenged, recovering alcoholics -- even the homeless and ex-convicts. Scott, however, remains something of a white elephant.

The National Restaurant Association, the National Council on Disability, and The Disabilities Statistics Center in San Francisco -- a company that culls statistics on disabled persons in the workforce -- none of them could identify a single paraplegic chef. Social service organizations and cooking schools were similarly stumped. Beth DePoint, public-relations manager for Rise Inc. -- a nonprofit company that provides vocational training and employment assistance to disabled individuals -- could not recall a single case of similar facts in her 25 year career. While Kathy Zraly, dean of Liberal and Management Studies at the CIA, reports that the school has enrolled students with a variety of handicaps -- amputated digits and hands, scoliosis, and even cerebral palsy -- she reports that the school has not had a single wheelchair-bound student.

This is not to say that Scott is the only paraplegic chef in the nation. Johnny Nucci, restaurant chef for a large chain hotel in Washington, D.C., was paralyzed from the waist down when he was shot in the process of being car-jacked. After recovering from the accident, Nucci was not taken back as chef at the hotel. A job answering phones was suggested instead.

Like Scott, Nucci wanted to cook, not take messages. With the assistance of an area non-profit group, Nucci was hired to work in the kitchen of another hotel in Washington. But as it turned out, the hotel didn't hire Nucci to cook either. "They sold me a bill of goods," says Nucci. "I was chopping fruit."
Nucci stayed for three and a half years, and when it became clear that he would be chopping fruit indefinitely, he took the only option he had left. Like Scott, he opened his own restaurant -- The Willows -- a neighborhood spot with an eclectic menu on Solomon's Island, MD.

"I knew no one would hire me in a wheelchair as executive chef of a major operation," he says flatly. "I had a dream to own my own place, so I bought my own restaurant."

Why do chefs like Nucci have such an obvious mistrust of the "opportunities" available to them in the industry? Perhaps it's because, while they believe no restaurateur will take a chance on them, restaurateurs are fearful of taking that chance. Indeed, the whole issue is uncharted territory.
For example, whether the Americans with Disabilities Act would require a restaurant to hire and accommodate a paraplegic chef is an issue that has not yet been litigated, according to attorney Judith Stoll, who specializes in labor practices. She says that in a case where a chef is paralyzed, but otherwise qualified for the job, the legal issue comes down to whether it is reasonable to require the restaurant to accommodate the individual's disability -- with ramps, specialized wheelchairs, wider aisles, or other such changes.
"The question is whether an individual's accommodation is reasonable for the restaurant, or does it impose an undue burden to the employer."

The experiences of both Scott and Nucci demonstrate that modifications are sometimes necessary, sometimes not. A widened aisle like the kind in Scott's kitchen does take up area that would otherwise be revenue-generating. Nucci was fortunate enough to buy a restaurant whose kitchen was already spacious enough for him to maneuver within. And a chair lift like the kind Scott uses is an expensive piece of equipment that requires custom installation.

Still, some encourage operators not to let the idea of accommodation alone dissuade them. "If an applicant meets the requirements of the job, a restaurateur should hire that person," says Steve Grover, VP of health and safety, regulatory affairs at the National Restaurant Association. "We're not suggesting a blind man fly a plane here. What we are talking about is not letting disability stand in the way of hiring the right employee for the right job."

Grover believes that the price of accommodation is usually offset by the retention rate and loyalty of disabled employees. "When you are talking about hiring and retaining a good employee, that cost is nothing. Statistics show that people with special needs are sometimes the most loyal, so what an accommodation costs you up front you will make up on the back end," he claims.

Scott would hardly argue with that. "I just want to make good food and be taken seriously for my culinary ability," he says. "I live with the reality that I may be in this chair for life. Everybody has their issues, and this one is mine. Even though it may sound cliche, it's true -- there is a world of opportunity out there, and you just have to grab it."