Full plates fight prejudice in Hungary restaurant

EU, foundation-backed restaurant gives people with disabilities a job

SZEKSZARD, Hungary (Reuters) — Waitress Maria Kecskemeti says working with people is a daily challenge, requiring much skill and empathy.

She also admits to initially being somewhat scared of how guests would react when she took the first orders from her wheelchair.

Kecskemeti works at Izlelo, a restaurant set up in 2007 by a local foundation to help handicapped people find employment. She is one of 15 employees, most of whom have some type of disability like deafness or a learning disability.

Fewer than one in five disabled people in Hungary was employed based on statistics from 2011, the latest available data, sharply below the national average for the healthy workforce.

Izlelo, which hosts about 100 guests per day, sits in the southern town of Szekszard, 156 km from Budapest, nestled near the Danube River in a tranquil region known for its sloping vineyards, lush forests and picturesque sunsets.

"Early on we were a bit frightened, so to speak, because none of us had worked in restaurants before," Kecskemeti said as she took a short break during a weekday lunch shift in the stylish restaurant, which underwent a major renovation and expansion this year, financed mostly from European Union funds.

"We were also afraid of how guests would respond upon seeing us," said Kecskemeti, who used to work on factory assembly lines.

Banishing just the types of fears that some guests, Kecskemeti and other colleagues were having was another major driving force behind the project.

"At the outset, we decided that we can only do this in a way that we can prove to many people just how much they are capable of and how many different things they can do," said Andrea Meszaros, head of the foundation running the restaurant.

Izlelo, fashioned out of a dilapidated former school building with investments worth about 80 million forints ($362,386 CAD) altogether, serves two soups and three main courses a day, mostly for people working nearby, including many regulars.

"We need to arrange shifts and various activities rather differently" than in a conventional restaurant, Meszaros said. "That is because we do not assign people to activities, but find suitable activities for individual people."

Delicious harmony

Instead of one cook being in charge of a dish from start to finish, Meszaros said processes are divided up and jobs assigned according to the best abilities of those at hand.

"In our case, the active contribution of four to five colleagues may be required to prepare a single dish," she said. "Thanks to their collaboration, guests will hopefully not notice any difference upon tasting the food."

That makes chef Sandor Both's job something like that of a conductor — working with kitchen maids who have learning difficulties and cooks who are hard of hearing — to arrange various parts into a delicious harmony.

"You need to hand out assignments that people can handle and do not feel disadvantaged in their work," said Both, who has run the kitchen for more than seven years. "We try to arrange jobs so that everyone has a daily sense of accomplishment."

One of the cooks, hearing-impaired Zsolt Vorosvaczky, used to work with timber before joining the restaurant, which gave him a reliable source of income after what he described as a patchy streak of employment due to his condition.

"Since we are handicapped, many employers reject us," Vorosvaczky said. "I was not very fond of cooking before, but I had no choice, because I had to make a living somehow.

"Since then, I have come to like it, because there is always something new," he said. "At the beginning it was a bit difficult, but I have gradually learned the ropes."

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