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, 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. He now works for Independents by Sodexo in a busy environment serving over 900 people daily. 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 like Liam who have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, 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 by getting him interested in cooking and encouraging him”.
In front of a packed audience at Ascot Racecourse Liam had one hour to cook a two course meal of pan fried Dover sole with garlic rosti, samphire, confit of tomato finished with hollandaise sauce, followed by chocolate fondant dessert with breadcrumb and berry compote. 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 diploma in Food Production and Cooking 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. He met and gained advice from celebrity chef Paul Rankin at the school’s official opening in 2011 which ignited his interest, and LVS Hassocks capitalised on this to develop Liam’s prospects of leading an independent life beyond the school. 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 Food Production and Cooking, 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.