News International

Deaf chef in the kitchen

David Uzzell proves that being hard of hearing is no barrier to being a good chef

Tuesday 5 September
Deaf chef in the kitchen

Editor - September 05 at 7:00 AM

Amid the hustle and bustle of the kitchen at Marcel's, a fine dining restaurant in Washington, D.C., one member of the staff is immune to the noise. It's David Uzzell, the 28-year-old saucier responsible for such delicacies as pan-seared foie gras or mushroom mornay sauce. Uzzell is a deaf chef — a rarity in the vast majority of restaurant kitchens. When chef and owner Robert Wiedmaier needs to get Uzzell's attention while expediting during dinner service, he pokes him in the shoulder. "David gets poked a lot," says Wiedmaier. "There might be a dent in his shoulder from my finger by now." It's not all poking, according to Uzzell. "We've come up with some workarounds," he says — or writes, using one of the many notepads that are permanently kept at his station to help with more lengthy communications.
Having completely lost his hearing by the time he was a year old, Uzzell is used to having to figure out how to communicate to a hearing audience. "I've never seen somebody text so fast," says Wiedmaier. Being hard of hearing in a busy restaurant kitchen means that Uzzell's coworkers have come up with a variety of ways to get his attention over the past few years, from laser pointers to elaborate hand signals. At the same time, Uzzell is now such a fixture in the brigade de cuisine — the French term for the hierarchy of kitchen staff — that they sometimes forget that he's deaf at all. In fact, sous chef Chris McFayden has a tendency to just talk extra loudly to Uzzell, which the kitchen staff finds amusing — as Wiedmaier quips, "It doesn't matter how loud you are, he still can't hear you." For Uzzell's part, whether or not he can hear McFayden yelling is less about the noise and more about the lesson. "You have to develop a thick skin," he says of working in a restaurant kitchen. "You can't take criticism personally. It's not about whether or not I'm deaf." "In a kitchen," says McFayden, "everybody tends to learn when the chef yells at somebody else for a mistake. With David, I have to remember that he's not going to hear me telling someone that they did something wrong; I'm going to have to make a point to make sure he knows."
After graduating in 2012 from Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., Uzzell had a degree in history but no actual work history to help him to find a job. It's a common problem in the deaf community. According to a 2016 study by the National Deaf Center, just 48 percent of deaf Americans, aged 21 to 64, is employed, either full or part time, as compared to 72 percent of the hearing population. A friend recommended that Uzzell look for work at Union Market, a popular upscale food court near Gallaudet, whose vendors catered to the nearby deaf community. Starting off as a dishwasher and working his way up through the ranks in a few professional kitchens, Uzzell arrived at Marcel's in 2014 looking for new opportunities. The fact that he was hard of hearing was not a hindrance as far as Wiedmaier was concerned, since he'd already previously employed a deaf chef at another restaurant. For now, Uzzell is focused on helping Marcel's gain a coveted Michelin star, but he still has some advice for those in the deaf community looking to land a job in a restaurant kitchen: "Bust ass, work hard, and keep your knives sharp."


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