One Chef’s Story: Cooking, Karate & Disability
When David Croft went on a diving trip in Bermuda he had the world at his feet. The 21 year-old was not only a promising chef but an excellent student of karate. In fact the day he took his fateful diving trip was the same day he found out he had been selected to represent his country at the 1980 World Karate Championships and inaugural World Games.
But when he suffered an accident that severely damaged his spinal cord, his life took a different direction. Paralysed from the neck down, his athletic days were over.
But while many people would have retreated from the world after such a blow, David has always tried to remain positive and has published an incredible book called Food for Thought.
As well as telling his incredible story, the book also features recipes donated by celebrity chefs, including Marco Pierre White, James Martin, Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes, Cyrus Todiwala and many more.
You’d initially been reluctant to write a book, what was it that changed your mind?
I had often been told that I should write a book about my life experiences, as, no doubt, have many others, both disabled and able bodied. The practicalities of such a project, however, were daunting.
English was not my best subject at school and I believe that, compared with some people, I have really done nothing particularly extraordinary with my life. These factors, combined with other difficulties I have had in my life, made the prospect too difficult to contemplate.
However, with a great deal of support from family and friends I got encouraged to do the book, which would eventually be part life story-part cookbook. The book would not have been possible though, without the superb support of a very good friend who owns an international book printing company in Padstow. They kindly printed 3,000 copies on a complimentary basis to help the two charities and myself.
How did you come up with the idea for the book? it’s unique after all
I first had the idea for the cookbook section of the book at a charity lunch, to which many other sporting tetraplegics and I were invited.
It was a fabulous meal, cooked by top chefs at a five-star London hotel. But as I looked around, all I could see were people having their meals cut up for them by their husbands, wives, partners or PA/carers with many peoples’ meals then going cold.
I looked around and thought to myself, does it have to be this way? Although all the eventual recipes in my book did not include more user-friendly meals; for various reasons I’m still hopeful a chefs’ group, catering college or others could in the future do a one off or a annual cookery competition showcasing glamorous meals that could be eaten easily by those with limited dexterity or visual impairments etc. People with gluten problems seem to be catered for while situations like I have mentioned have not been considered yet!
What was the response like from professional chefs when you asked for contributions?
When I first approached the professional chefs with a rather novel letter suggested by my sister I had an amazing response. In fact so many chefs responded often with very touching replies that I unfortunately could not include every chef in the book.
Plus it was difficult to get some of the recipes offered by the chefs cooked and photographed by my local college who were also most supportive. In turn each recipe page was to be sponsored for £100 by various companies and organisations to further help Hospitality Action and Regain prior to publication.
This also took a lot of time so in the end and after three years of hard work I had to cut and run so to speak, with all the suitably photographed recipes given. At the end of things I was also very grateful that my ex karate instructor, Ticky Donovan 9th Dan OBE, and the professional chef Brian Turner CBE who agreed to write Foreword’s and Afterword’s for the book both of which were very touching.
The book is written, in some sections, with a sense of humour. How do you remain upbeat?
Humour, has always been the most important thing that has got me through most of the bad aspects of my life.
As such there are some very humorous stories in the book with some people wanting me to do something even funnier! Similarly, when my accident occurred while things were very difficult at first I was very fortunate that I later received great support from people in the hospitality industry and elsewhere.
Likewise, when I have had periods of illness or bad times and then got back my fighting spirit again I have often been blessed with something special like the offer of a holiday, or the superb support by the likes of Motability and other charities have kept me upbeat. In turn such support has often spurred me on to help others in a similar or more difficult situation to myself.
How important is it to you to still be involved in the catering industry?
This is an interesting question! I say this, as while I feel I was a very good pastry chef, which was eventually my forte at the time of my accident I did not learn a lot as a chef for various reasons, as people will find when they read my book.
I therefore tell people, which is somewhat true, that I was far superior at karate than I was a chef!
The most important reason why I still like to be involved in the catering industry, apart from the camaraderie of others, is while I have my various restrictions, as a high lesion tetraplegic, especially more so now, as an ageing tetraplegic I, like my able bodied counterparts like taking breaks away or eating out.
This is where I try to change attitudes where I can in respect of accommodating disabled guests and diners, as sadly the hospitality industry at times is still only playing lip service, so to speak, to the needs of disabled people.
Things were brought even more into perspective last year when I attended a charity lunch in London and stayed at the superb Dorsett Hotel. The Dorsett had an overhead hoist in its accessible bedroom, which was great as I need to use one when away from home and though I have a portable model, this is somewhat cumbersome.
However, when I took my lady friend to the Savoy hotel for a birthday drink being, as I used to work at the Savoy, I could not believe how unsuitable it now was for someone in my situation. All this after a complete refurbishment of a supposed £200 million! I
If the Dorsett, which was also a ‘Grade II listed building’ could be completely refurbished for around £25 million then surely the Savoy and others in the future could forego some luxurious chandeliers or ornate furniture to better accommodate disabled guests and diners!
You’ve been through a lot, much of which would have destroyed some people, what kept you strong after the accident?
This is very true and though I had some very dark moments – being able bodied, as well as being disabled – I feel people have often seen the good side of what I have been trying to achieve for others in similar situations to myself.
As such many good things have often occurred, which have kept me strong and grateful for the support given, as well, as still wishing to enjoy life as best I can. Ultimately, though I do not think I would have survived my accident after various complications had set in had I not been so fit from doing karate and many other sports, so karate and sport were ultimately my saving graces.
What were the lows and highs of your life and career to this point?
I feel the earlier highlights of my life were achieving a 2nd Dan black belt in karate and without doubt making it into the England Under-21 squad before deciding to go to Bermuda to work!
Similarly, gaining a job, as a pastry chef in Bermuda at the age of 20 was fantastic, while living and working in such an idyllic place. It was amazing. At the time I had never had a holiday before.
This combined with being chosen to fight in the 1980 world karate championships and inaugural world games seemed to be the icing on the cake of my life until my accident dealt me a devastating blow.
Another major regret is missing out on a superb night of athletics at the London 2012 Olympics, as I ended up in hospital due to being completely burnt out promoting my book and then receiving a ridiculous letter from the Government questioning the extent of my disability!
On the flip side after I had recovered from this period of illness an old girl friend from school read my book and asked to pop round for a cup of coffee and things have been going well now for over three years! Another earlier highlight in life and probably most significant was being able to have a wheelchair accessible home built. This would not have been possible without the support of an earlier lady friend along with her and many other peoples support.
I therefore now feel truly fortunate, as it would not be possible to build such a house now, unless you received compensation after an accident or came from a wealthy family neither of which applied to me.
What would you say to someone who suffered similar injuries to you and felt their life was over?
If others end up in a similar situation to me in the future I would always encourage them to try and meet others in a similar situation to themselves.
I was always reluctant to do so due to living in a remote part of Cornwall and not really accepting my injury. Similarly, I would encourage people to try and make the most out of their lives as is possible.
I ended up having a difficult but somewhat comfortable life after my accident but this did not take me out of my ‘comfort zone’ so to speak. As such when life did become more complicated again, as mentioned in my book, it was incredible to go skiing, gliding, fishing and in turn driving a high tech vehicle from my wheelchair, all of which were beyond my wildest dreams when I had my accident.
This was the added reason why I included a Dinner Party section in my book, featuring the achievements of 10 other sporting tetraplegics, as some lead incredible lives compared to me.
It would also be hoped that should someone suffer similar injuries to me that they would be supported if need be by the industry charity Hospitality Action or by their former employees and colleagues. I say this, as while I was working for one of the largest hotel chains in the world at the time of my accident the last words from leaving Bermuda by the General Manager of the hotel were ‘best wishes!’ Thankfully, after contacting my former head chef and colleagues at the Churchill (now Hyatt Regency – The Churchill) in London I received amazing support, which help provide me with my first wheelchair accessible vehicle, which stood me in good stead for the future. The funding for the vehicle was also helped thanks to the superb support of the industry charity Hospitality Action.
What else would you like to do, now the book has been published?
Though I was not that privileged in life prior to or after my accident I feel I have had a good innings, as a high lesion tetraplegic. All of this despite suffering a great deal of pain and muscle spasm from my accident, which still restrict me.
However, thanks to the support of many people I feel I have achieved a great deal in my disabled capacity from what I thought possible. In turn, as an ageing tetraplegic I feel I have to slow down somewhat with various things to avoid burn out or complications.
I still hope though that it may be possible to see some more of the world and complete parts of my ‘Bucket list’ so to speak like abled bodied counterparts. I say this, as sadly most disability magazines I now receive with people I knew appear of late to be in the obituary section!
Recently, I went scuba diving in Cyprus, which was superb, as was this was planned in Bermuda prior to my accident! Similarly, I hope I can go big game fishing somewhere accessible and if possible catch a large Tuna or Marlin. Something, similar was also planned prior to my accident!
I also hope the remaining 1,200 copies of my book get sold. This could further help Hospitality Action and Regain along with a new project I have planned to help other disabled people. The book could act, as a nice gift by hoteliers, restaurateurs or catering colleges to give to their guests, diners or students.
What would you be most excited about if someone offered to make you dinner?
If I had the choice of someone to cook me dinner in an ideal world I would choose Tom Kerridge to cook a roast pork dinner being as I love pork. I recall being blown away by one of Tom’s roast pork dishes on TV.
I was also fortunate to enjoy one of Tom’s pork starters along with his great banter at a charity do in aid of Hospitality Action that I was kindly invited to some years ago.
Food for Thought is available from Amazon and from David’s own website