Headway Member of the Month - Memories from Milan

This month, we sat down with John: member, cook and traveller, to chat about his journey with cooking and his time in the Headway kitchen.

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John sustained his brain injury whilst working as a project manager for a retail site. After falling from a roof, he ended up in a coma for six weeks before waking up. When John first joined Headway East London, he spoke fondly about his time spent in Italy as a cook and restaurant worker in the seventies. Now, he's a vital part of the kitchen crew on a Wednesday. We sat down with John to talk about Italy, food and cooking at Headway.

"For a man like me... you know I never even passed my eleven plus, and I ended up managing a place in Italy, learning a bit of the language and earning money."

How did you first discover that cooking was something you cared about?

I went for a holiday with a friend of mine in the late seventies, I would’ve been 19 or 20... something like that. We went on a bus trip sort of thing around Europe. When we got to Italy I loved it, they like the same things I like: good wine, family and friends, so we got along like a house on fire. I said to my friend, I’m going to stick around for a while. I didn’t have much money but I thought, I’ll find something.

I started washing up in kitchens because that was something I could do without having to speak the language. Gradually I was helping the chefs and cooking a bit. I kept changing restaurants to get more money and because I had to work where they also had accommodation for staff. I’d move a lot because, I didn’t like him, didn’t like that one - you know. Eventually I got to Milan because that’s where all the money is. Although Rome is the head, it’s just a touristy place really. Milan is where the real money is.

I got to know some great people, the best restaurant there at the time was Serafino’s and I got to know them quite well, worked for them a few times. Eventually, I ended up working on the Piazza San Frobio at a friend's restaurant, where I was the manager. For a man like me.. you know I never even passed my eleven plus, and I ended up managing a place in Italy, learning a bit of the language and earning money.

"It’s like love, or relationships, it’s down to timing. Sometimes you have let go of things sometimes you keep on going."

After Italy, how did cooking play a role in your life?

Well, later when I came back to London I worked for several businesses. One man I worked for had two daughters, his girlfriend had left him, so I used to pick them up from school and taught them everything I knew. When I had two girls of my own, it was easy.

Cooking like most other things in life, people mistake it for having a gift, but actually it’s much simpler than that. It’s all down to timing, and that’s it. It’s like love, or relationships, it’s down to timing. Sometimes you have let go of things sometimes you keep on going. It’s not skills per say it’s using common sense; anyone can learn the skills.

"I’m proud just today, just cooking something that most people seem to like. Being in the kitchen makes me feel useful, there’s loads going on and it brings those times in Milan back for me."

Tell me a bit about your time in the Headway Kitchen, why do you enjoy spending time there?

I love the ambience; working with people, getting things in and making order out of what could have been a bloody great mess. The more things you’ve got to overcome the better you feel after. And if the food tastes good – that's it.

I’m proud just today, just cooking something that most people seem to like. Being in the kitchen makes me feel useful, there’s loads going on and it brings those times in Milan back for me.

That’s a problem that I have. I’m no longer useful, I no longer have an obvious function. I can’t go out to work and earn money and things and that’s partially why I like working in the kitchen here. It makes me useful and I feel like I’ve got a role.

But I’ve done some pretty exciting things in my life. I’ve got an edge, I don’t see things the way other people do. People want me to be what they think I should be but I’ve never done that. I’ve always gone where the wind’s blown me.