Life lessons from the kitchen

Luis Molina, Jason York, Jared Springer, EJ Tan and Master Chef Luca Luca Toumadi prepare lunch inside the kitchen at Bella Cucina in Seco Canyon Village, Sunday, Feb . 2, 2020. GIlbert Bernal/The Signal
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Though the master chef at Bella Cucina Italian Restaurant, Luca Luca Toumadi, considers his kitchen a fun one, he still compared an internship with him akin to going through military training.

“It’s a little bit like boot camp, but I enjoy it,” intern E.J. Tan said. “If I can handle (working) here, I can handle anywhere.”

Tan and Jared Springer are Toumadi’s first two interns through Yes I Can Unity Through Music & Education, a nonprofit that works with young adults with disabilities to prepare them to enter the workforce.

“The restaurant business is probably the most stressful (industry), and working in a restaurant is not really easy,” Toumadi said.

That being said, Toumadi believes working in a restaurant can build skills that will be useful in any industry.

“If they go to work at another place, they will never give up… they’ll be like soldiers,” he added. “They’ll be ready to go.”

Video by Gilbert Bernal/The Signal

Though Springer is a man of few words, he goes above and beyond in the kitchen, according to Toumadi.

“This guy here doesn’t talk, but that’s fine,” Toumadi said. “I don’t need people to talk in the kitchen. I need people to do the job well done, to work.”

As Springer worked, Toumadi described the care that goes into dicing tomatoes, pointing out how slowly and carefully Springer was dicing as to not smash them.

“When you give him something to do, he finished it quickly, and he’s ready to go for another job,” Toumadi added. “He will never watch the clock. You have to come over and (tell him to) stop.”

Even when Springer’s shift is over and he’s waiting to be picked up, he will start cleaning tables if he notices the busers are busy. “What a beautiful thing,” Toumadi said.

“Lots of times when people join Yes I Can, they don’t know what to do, (and) personally in my case, I’m still not quite sure yet,” Springer said. “I will say it is very nice working here … I like the experience.”

Toumadi continued his instruction as he watched closely while Tan prepared a chicken tequila fettuccine dish.

“So first, we want to put oil on the pan, so when the vegetables go in, they don’t stick to the pan,” Tan said.

With each step, Toumadi made sure that Tan was explaining himself, asking questions as he went.

“You said something very, very important,” Toumadi said, instructing Tan to repeat himself. “The reason he works very slow is because I told him to (do so) and work step-by-step. Otherwise, he would have been done a long time ago.”

Jared Springer, intern under the guidance of Chef Luca Luca Toumadi at Bella Cucina made possible by Yes I Can Unity Through Music & Education internship program, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. Gilbert Bernal/The Signal

While preparing the amount of food needed for a restaurant that seats more than 200 can seem daunting, both Tan and Springer have excelled at the task and can now slice and dice like pros after just a couple of months interning at Bella Cucina.

“These guys surprised me … When they came the first day, they (were) shy; the second day they started opening (up); the third day, they started communicating; and look at them now, (they’re) comfortable,” Toumadi said. “And when you give them a hard time sometimes because that’s the kitchen, they’re happy, they smile and they finish the job.”

Both Tan and Springer go the extra mile: They have positive attitudes, never missed a day of work, show up early and are hard workers, Toumadi said.

“They have good skills. You just need to have the patience to show them (how),” he added. “We’re not helping them, they are helping us.”

After having such a positive experience with Tan and Springer, not only is Toumadi looking forward to continuing to work with students from the YIC program, but also advises other businesses in the community to follow suit.

Both Bret Lieberman, YIC’s executive director, and Kirsten Fitzpatrick, deputy director at YIC, agreed that Tan and Springer have grown tremendously since joining the program.

“All these individuals coming in have natural talents and abilities. It’s just finding what their niche is and what they’re good at and tapping into that,” Fitzpatrick said.

The YIC program first starts with the basics, teaching participants 21st-century work skills that cover a wide variety of different skills that would be important to any employer.

EJ Tan finishes his shift as an intern under the guidance of Master Chef Luca Luca Toumadi made possible by Yes I Can Unity Through Music & Education internship program, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. Gilbert Bernal/The Signal

“The internship allows them to practically apply those skills in a real-life work environment,” Fitzpatrick added.

It’s only after learning those skills that the YIC can focus on each individual’s interests.

“It’s really finding the passion that these guys have, and ultimately, if they have a dream of working at something, showing them (that) you might not get there right away,” Lieberman said. “It’s all about goal setting and showing them that anything is truly attainable if you put in the hard work (and) have that grit attitude.”

For Tan, that passion lies with acting and has since he was 7 years old.

“What I want to do for the rest of my life is actually be an actor, either in movies, Broadway or TV shows,” he said. “It would mean the world to me.”

Tan and Springer represent just two of the millions of individuals with disabilities, yet the unemployment rate for those with disabilities was more than twice that for those without — 9.2% versus 4.2% — in 2017, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are approximately 15.1 million people of working age living with disabilities in the U.S., so research suggests that if businesses like Bella Cucina embrace disability inclusion, they can gain access to a new pool of more than 10.7 million.

For more information on Yes I Can Unity Through Music & Education, visit or call 800-961-5844.

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