Autistic learner enjoys tasty competition win

A former learner from LVS Hassocks is celebrating after scooping a national cooking award.

Liam Pope, 19, won a tense public competition to become the Young Chef of the Year at the Sodexo Salon Culinaire held at Ascot Racecourse on Wednesday October 21, against the clock and under the pressure of a public gallery and watchful judges.

Liam, who has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, developed his love of cooking and first qualification in it whilst at LVS Hassocks, a specialist day and residential school in West Sussex for young people with learning difficulties.

His mother Sharon Rance was quick to praise the school’s part in launching Liam into a successful independent life with a career: “With young adults with autism like Liam you have to find their niche. We hadn’t found it but LVS Hassocks did. I often wonder where he would be now if he hadn’t joined the school – it turned his life around.”

In front of a packed audience at Ascot Racecourse Liam had one hour to cook a two course meal of pan fried Dover Sole followed by chocolate fondant dessert.

As the judges sampled his cooking and deliberated over their decision, Liam said: “I was really nervous for the first 15 minutes but then I enjoyed it – it was a great experience. I want to thank everyone at LVS Hassocks for setting me on this career path – it taught me so much and meant when I went in to a big work kitchen I wasn’t daunted as I already had good knowledge. That helped me keep calm today.”

Liam was also helped by the front-row support of some of his friends still at LVS Hassocks who have recently embarked on their own NVQ Level 2 courses at the school.

They were present to both encourage Liam and gain their own inspiration to follow in his footsteps, seeing what they can achieve as well as gaining valuable social experience of being part of a big event.

With a brand new academic classroom block opened at LVS Hassocks including a designated food technology room, the school is keen to develop the interests and talents of all its learners, whatever they may be, to help them prepare for living independent lives.

This latest milestone in Liam’s life is set to propel him even further into the world of cooking, with his Young Chef of the Year prize including a week working with Raymond Blanc at his Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons restaurant and hotel in Oxfordshire, a week at Le Notre training academy in Paris and cooking in the Chelsea Flower Show hospitality area with Raymond Blanc.

All of this is a far cry from arriving at LVS Hassocks aged 14 only able to make a pot noodle and without a thought of a future career.

By the time he left at 17, Liam had a planned career path thanks to hands-on work experience with the Yummy Pub Co, an NVQ Level 1 qualification in Food preparation and cooking, academic qualifications and an apprenticeship to run alongside an NVQ Level 2 in professional cookery, funded by members of the ALMR (Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers).

Head of Centre at LVS Hassocks Kira Brabenec said: “We are delighted for Liam. Importantly his progression will inspire current learners at the school, and reinforces that LVS Hassocks helps learners develop career paths and prepare for independent lives.”

With just 15% of adults with autism in full time employment, Liam’s success highlights what autistic learners can achieve with the right support and development.

Report and picture contributed by LVS Hassocks.