Talented chef-in-training overcomes obstacles Cookbooks helped him battle dyslexia

September 13, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Reading never came easily to 17-year-old Randy Shircel of Elkridge -- until he opened up a cookbook.

It was there that the dyslexic senior at Howard School of Technology found the incentive to study words whose letters were mixed up in his mind by his learning disability.

"God gave me the gift of being able to open up a cookbook, read the entire recipe and know how to do it," he said. "But I can't pick up an English book and, in 30 to 40 minutes, finish a chapter. That's when it clicked in my head that cooking was a sign from God."

It may take Randy hours to read an act of Shakespeare, but it takes him only minutes to scan a recipe and memorize how to make a dish.

"When it comes to cooking, I can do it," he said.

Teachers describe him as one of the best culinary arts students ever to come through the school.

"As an experienced chef, you can tell when a special student comes along right away," says Chef John Johnson, a teacher. "They're excited about working with food and being in school. Randy's like the perfect role-model student."

The 17-year-old's talk is peppered with recipes for marinades, ways to de-bone chicken and methods of using leftovers to work up a family meal.

His Christmas wish list is full of items unlikely for a teen-ager: knife sets, pots and pans, cutting boards, pasta maker, kitchen mixers.

Randy's interest in cooking began when his parents separated while he was a middle-schooler. Tired of eating tasteless TV dinners and twice-cooked food, he wanted to learn to how to prepare fresh meals.

Another cooking teacher, Chef Elaine Heilman, remembers an eager ninth-grader who came to the vocational school with a desire to learn.

"He's a workaholic," she said. "No matter what needs to be done, he goes above and beyond. And when he does a task, he has a flair for creativity."

"Cooking gives me a natural high," says Randy, whose specialties are Italian, French and American food. "I get a lot of energy from it. I'm getting my hands into what I want to do with my life."

Randy has been been manager of the School of Technology's dining room, Great Expectations, since he was a freshman -- a responsibility usually delegated to upperclassmen.

In that position, Randy trains a staff of eight students in restaurant protocol: serve from the left; pick up from the right; put small salad forks on the outside; hold carrying trays so soup doesn't slide.

"It's almost as important as the food," he said of the protocol. "If you go out to fine dining, you should be served correctly. It's your money."

Randy's goal is to open his own restaurant. He is preparing by taking a variety of jobs at local restaurants, including waiter, line cook, bus boy and even dishwasher.

He has worked at restaurants such as Clyde's in Columbia and Tersiguel's in Ellicott City. Currently, he works several days a week at Cafe Normandie in Ellicott City, where he sometimes cooks the main dishes when the restaurant gets busy.

"I think it's real important as a cook or a chef to know both sides of a restaurant," he said.

Randy currently is preparing for an annual recipe contest at the ++ prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. The winner earns a four-year scholarship to the school. His recipe-in-progress: a deboned Cornish hen dish, served with stuffing, pureed beets, and a potato and carrot basket.

Though other culinary colleges are interested in him, Johnson and Wales is Randy's first choice.

"This scholarship is everything to me," he said. "This is my wholecareer in this contest. I want to go to this college. It's almost like Harvard and Yale to other people."

Hard work will pay off, he believes, despite his learning disability, though Randy said he needs help once in a while.

Sometimes, he said, judges in cooking contests will read him read him long recipes.

Classmates also correct his spelling if he makes a mistake in writing menu items or recipe directions.

"If they see it, I want them to correct it or make it better," he says. "I think cooking is a way of overcoming my disability."

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