They used to say that food was the way to a man’s heart. In 2021, the expression seems a bit dated but good food has always been one of the best ways to bring people together and to develop lasting relationships – and in recent years, it’s also become the key to a whole spectrum of work and career opportunities.

Over the last year or so, good food has become a central pillar in Tender Loving Care Disability Services’ strategy to support people with a disability develop skills for independent living, community participation and employment, simultaneously building individual confidence and self-worth.

In recent weeks, a number of clients have graduated from its Culinary Program under the watching eye of a MasterChef judge. They’ve rustled up an impressive Suhoor in the Recipes For Ramadan kitchen, found jobs with the Culinary Group’s Eighteen28 Espresso Bar & Eatery in the Sydney suburb of Punchbowl and secured roles at new TLC sister company MAYEfoodz, representing, importing and distributing new and unique international food brands to the Australian market.

Masterchef Turkey judge Somer Sivrioglun with one of TLC’s Culinary Program participant

“As an organisation, we call ourselves a family. It seems the best description for the support we want to provide and the life-changing difference we want to make in the lives of the people we work with,” says TLC CEO Yasser Zaki.

“Our aim has always been to develop programs that help our participants build important life skills such as cooking, shopping for groceries, and engagement with their community but beyond that we want to help people achieve their goals and to find a place in the world of work.”

The disability and employment landscape however is complex and while Australia at large may have enjoyed job growth in recent years, the unemployment rate has grown for people with a disability so finding those places needs to be about more than just skills development.

Last year, TLC launched a Culinary Program with the primary aim of developing confidence and enjoyment around preparing and shopping for your own food and putting meals on the table. It involved weekly classes; a partnership with Recipes for Ramadan to encourage thinking about food as a social experience, the opportunity to try new things, share stories, and be encouraged to share your own; a socially distanced iftar and a 12-month four-level program progressing to graduation with a certificate of competition and references enabling participants to apply for jobs in the hospitality sector.

A year on and TLC has launched MAYEfoodz as a sister company, importing quality foods and recruiting people with a disability to its staff.

“Our plan is for 70% of our staff to be people with a disability in roles right across the business,” says Managing Director Mahmoud Farag. “Our business model is built around breaking down the barriers to employment and putting people with a disability at the centre of what we do.”

“We think there is a natural synergy between our commitment to provide quality food and career opportunities for those who are not normally given the chance. We know what valuable employees they can and will be and want MAYEfoodz to give back to them the knowledge that they are valued.”

Two years ago, only 24% of people registered with NDIS (the National Disability Insurance Scheme) were in paid work. The government aims for 30% of working age participants to achieve their goal of employment by June 2023 and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) has challenged the rest of society to come up with ways for people with a disability to find pathways to employment.

MAYEfoodz intends to be one such way with the TLC Culinary Program building participants’ confidence to explore what work might look like for them and MAYEfoodz being in a position to offer real world employment to people who may have never dreamed of working, or who may have acquired a disability late in life or may have been in employment and are looking for something new.

The business has kicked off with exclusive representation, import and distribution rights for highly regarded Egyptian brands Domty Cheeses and Fruit Juices and similar exclusive rights to Voodz frozen vegetables.

Two members of the TLC ‘family’ who recently graduated the Culinary Program have secured jobs in administration and distribution roles. Billy Etri is one of those first MAYEfoodz employees.

Billy Etri demonstrating as much chutzpah as Jamie Oliver in the Recipes For Ramadan kitchen

“My disability is dwarf syndrome. I suffered a lot from bullying, particularly at school. It affected my mental health as well. I was always down all the time. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to overcome it. But TLC gave me the motivation to do stuff. They treated me like anyone else. People can develop life skills and experience. Gain more experience. And confidence.

“There’s a lot of people that underestimate me. They say you can’t do this. You can’t do that. You’re too short. The way I look at it – yeah I have a disability but I can do what I want. I wake up in the morning. Go to work. DOMTY and VOODZ are huge international brands. Domty cheese is the world’s best feta! We’re the official Australian supplier and I know we can be strong ambassadors for them. They already have 140 retailers in 27 countries, feeding more than 100 thousand homes. We can definitely add to that in Australia! For anyone who doubted me – look where I am now. People out there who have a disability don’t think you can’t do it.”

TLC and MAYEfoodz Director Yasser Zaki says “One of the biggest struggles that people with a disability face is getting the opportunity. There is a perception that people with a disability can’t work, that employers find it too difficult, that they can only manage menial work and so are often underemployed with limited hours and limited options. But my experience is once you get the opportunity and unleash all the potential and the skills, they flourish.

“Billy is a beautiful success story. Sometimes we need to go out there and voice what we want so people hear what we want. It’s the same for all of us. Having a job brings significant social and well-being benefits. It becomes part of our identity – how we see and respect ourselves and how others see us – and it helps give us meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging. Having a job can be really key to becoming independent and the right to work and to independence is something we should all have.”

“There’s a responsibility on those of us working in Disability Services to demystify the myth around disability employment. The people we work with honestly blow my mind. The hard work, perseverance and commitment has been incredibly impressive. They blow my mind with how much they are able to achieve and inspire us every single day to work harder and to be better people. We are so proud of each and every one and cannot wait to see them achieve their goals.”

Yasser Zaki is CEO of TLC and a Director of MAYEfoodz (www.MAYEfoodz.com.au)

Recipes for Lina’s Mloukiya, Ramia’s Bamia (Okra) and Amera’s Egyptian Lamb, Pea and Carrot Stew using Voodz vegetables can be found at www.RecipesForRamadan.com/recipes

Across July, look out for Domty and Voodz giveaways with some of Australia’s most popular Muslim foodies.