The first thing that strikes you is the calm, the light, the modern art on the walls – and then of course the food.
It’s only later that you realise there is something different, and a little special, about Universo Santi, a restaurant in the southern Spanish city of Jerez.
“People don’t come here because the staff are disabled but because it’s the best restaurant in the area. Whatever reason they came for, the talking is about the food,” says Antonio Vila.
Vila is the president of the Fundación Universo Accesible, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping people with disabilities join the mainstream workforce. He has also been the driving force behind Universo Santi, the haute cuisine restaurant whose 20 employees all have some form of disability.
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Read more“I always wanted to show what people with disabilities, given the right training, were capable of,” says Vila, who is a senior manager at DKV insurance. “They were not represented in the world of haute cuisine. Universo Santi has broken through that barrier.”
The 20 staff, whose ages range from 22 to 62, were recruited from an original list of 1,500. To qualify, applicants had to be unemployed and have more than 35% disability.
“I feel really lucky to be part of this,” says Gloria Bazán, head of human resources, who has cerebral palsy. “It’s difficult to work when society just sees you as someone with a handicap. This has given me the opportunity to be independent and to participate like any other human being.”
Alejandro Giménez: ‘Working here has transformed my life.’ Photograph: Universo SantAlejandro Giménez, 23, has Down’s syndrome and is a commis chef. “It’s given me the chance to become independent doing something I’ve loved since I was a kid,” says Giménez, who lived with his mother until he was recruited.“Working here has transformed my life. So many things I used to ask my mother to do, I do myself. I didn’t even know how to take a train by myself because I’d just miss my stop.”
[IFrame] A recent guest chef was Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, twice voted the best restaurant in the world. Giménez said he was not daunted at coming under Roca’s orders. “I’m not afraid of anything. The only thing I’m afraid of is not knowing something. I always want to learn and here I’m learning from the very best.”Universo Santi may soon have a star in the Michelin firmament as the Michelin Guide people have already sampled the menu which, at €60 (£53), is less than half the price of a typical menú de degustación.
“Of course they didn’t introduce themselves but we knew who they were,” says Almudena Merlo, the maître d’.
While few are as gastronomically ambitious as Universo Santi, there are several other projects across Europe where catering is giving disabled people a new lease of life. One is La Fourchette de Collserola in Barcelona, which is staffed by 20 people with a range of physical and mental disabilities. The cuisine is Mediterranean, with vegan and kosher options.
In 2010 Brownies&downieS launched in the Dutch town of Veghel as a café run by people with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities. It was so successful that the venture became a franchise, with 53 branches in the Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa.
Another similar project is the One Eighty Restaurant in Portadown, Northern Ireland, which was established in 2011 and trains 16- to 22-year-olds with learning difficulties to work in the hospitality business.
The Jerez restaurant takes its name from Santi Santamaria, chef at the Michelin three-star Can Fabes in Catalonia until his sudden death in 2011. Can Fabes closed shortly afterwards but his family wanted to carry on his name and culinary tradition and were keen to support the Jerez project.
The family’s enthusiasm attracted the attention of Spain’s top chefs, among them Martín Berasategui, Roca and Ángel León, all of whom have contributed recipes and their time as guest chefs at the restaurant.
Disciples of Santamaria helped establish the kitchen, whose equipment was transferred in its entirely from Can Fabes, and several of the dishes on the menu de degustación are Santamaria originals.
Since it opened in October 2017, Universo Santi continues to win plaudits for its cuisine. Speaking at the restaurant, Roca said cooking was about humanity and was a way of integrating people. “It gives me great satisfaction to see it realised in a project such as this,” he said.