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Ottawa chef hosting virtual cooking classes for those living with disabilities

Richard Stewart, who suffers from ataxia, says he just needs a bit more funding to continue offering his classes for free.

Richard Stewart, a.k.a Chef Troy, a former private chef, now uses his cooking skills to virtually teach individuals living with disabilities how to cook simple, healthy meals.

It was two years ago that Stewart was diagnosed with a rare degenerative neurological disorder ataxia, which, depending on the severity, affects the body’s motor skills, causing difficulty with movement and speech, among other ailments.

As a result, he has now been confined to a wheelchair. 

The idea of teaching people with other disabilities how to cook came from an instructor who was teaching a course that Stewart had attended, on how to slowly gain stability again in his own life. 

“We came up with the idea of teaching other people with disabilities how to cook, so they can be more independent and gain that independence through cooking,” explains Stewart. 

“So they can not only enjoy life, but cook the things that they actually do enjoy. I came up with the idea of cooking together through Zoom and learning their disabilities, and then [figuring] out what is the best practice for them.”

This initiative has recently earned him a reward of $1,000 from the Awesome Ottawa Foundation.

Originally from Oakville, Stewart moved to Calgary to pursue music, which eventually led him to Vancouver.

It was in Vancouver that he began his career in the culinary industry, where he worked as a private chef for 16 years. In hopes of expanding his career, he moved to Ottawa, where he found himself catering for the Justice Supreme Court and various other diplomats.

But since he is no longer able to cater, Stewart now uses his passion to help people acquire new cooking skills. His virtual classes take place about twice to three times a week, where he teaches everything from roast and butter chicken to salsa. Stewart’s focus is also to advise people on the tools that they can use around the kitchen such as hand guards, or specially designed utensils especially for the safety of meal preparation.

His favourite meal has always been spaghetti. 

“My mom always made the best spaghetti sauce. She has a recipe that was handed down her from generations, and I've learned it and adapted it,” explains Stewart. “I just love it — it's kind of it's one of those comfort foods." 

Aside from making sure his pupils have the right ingredients, the financial aspect presents a challenge for the chef as well. Stewart hopes he can acquire more funding in the future to continue teaching.

“[It’s] honestly more financial, because I'm going out and buying the food and coming home and showing them how to make it,” explains Stewart.

“I’m paying for the Zoom classes, and I have no problem doing that — I'm willing to do that. But the challenge when it comes to interaction is getting people to understand me, because of my speech, which is hampered by ataxia.”

In addition to his virtual classes, he also collaborates with Hope for Ataxia, where he hosts weekly cooking classes for the organization. Stewart’s hope for his virtual cooking classes is that people who are living with disabilities can learn how to cook simple healthier meals independently, as oppose to microwaveable meals or expensive take-out options. 

“I have no plans of stopping. I want to grow this, I want to continue to reach more people if I can find some way to get funding,” explains Stewart. “I can hire somebody and continue to expand that way. I want my classes to be free, but I want to reach as many people as possible.”

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