Champions in catering, too

Adrián serves customers at a table on the terrace of the restaurant.
Adrián serves customers at a table on the terrace of the restaurant. / Josele-Lanza
  • Working in collaboration with the Fundatul Foundation in Marbella, Álvaro Morales is training and employing young people with disabilities in his new restaurant

“They come in every day with a smile. They feel part of the team and sometimes they ask if they can stay longer, or come in their day off. It's normal. It shouldn't be news.”

Álvaro Morales, a chef with a long career behind him and an indefatigable fighter for labour integration for people “with different abilities” (he says he hates the word 'disabled'), can boast of having cooked up one of his best creations yet: an eating house (he prefers that description) in which the main ingredient is precisely that: 'integration'. To achieve this, many of his staff are people with disabilities or at risk of exclusion.

At present Adrián and Manuel are doing work experience. They have a few days to go, and then their contract comes to an end. They are 21, and have Down's syndrome. Until now neither of them has worked in the catering business. In fact, Adrián has never had a chance of accessing the labour market at all. “This is my second home,” he says. “There's always something to do. We serve tables, polish glasses and cutlery... everything,” he explains, with a smile.

This is Manuel's second experience of work. A few months ago he took part in the regional government's Emplea Joven scheme as a street cleaner. He wouldn't swap what he is doing now for that. “I never thought I would end up working in this business,” he says. “I never thought I would work at all,” says Adrián.

A couple comes in and Adrián diligently goes to greet them as they sit at a table, then takes a note of the drinks they order.

How do the customers react? Adrián tells us of an experience he had a few days ago. One of the customers started crying halfway through her meal. “She said she had a son with Down's syndrome and she had never imagined he might be able to work one day. She said we are an example to others,” he says.

In a few weeks these two waiters will join two other people at Zoe, Álvaro Morales' restaurant in Calle Calvario in Marbella, through a work programme organised by the Spanish Red Cross.

“We want this to be real integration, not just a photo opportunity,” explains the chef, who has also collaborated with the Down Granada and Down Malaga associations on activities related with cooking. In Granada, he had a TV cookery programme which ran for several seasons in which he was accompanied by people with intellectual disabilities.

Down, Aspandem and Fundatul

Álvaro was born in Valencia but mostly lived in Madrid. He came to Marbella to work at La Taberna del Alabardero, the restaurant chain which also took him to Washington, Seville and Puerto Banús. He is currently the executive chef of the exclusive Los Granados restaurant in Puerto Banús and has just been appointed gastronomy director of the forthcoming Starlite Festival.

At the same time he has formed close links with associations in Marbella such as Aspandem and the Fundatul Foundation, with whom he is collaborating to find staff for his new restaurant.

“Álvaro suggested this to us and told us the profile he needed; we chose the candidates we thought would be most suitable, and he took them on,” says Elena Martín Illescas, the employment coordinator at Fundatul. “The ideal situation in these cases is the triangle: a balance between the family, the company and the foundation, and that's what we have here,” she explains.

Elena becomes quite emotional as she describes how working at Zoe has changed the lives of Adrián and Manuel. Before starting his training period, Adrián hardly left home. Now he even goes to work on his own.

“It is changing their lives on all levels; they have even lost some weight,” she says. Elena agrees that the presence of a person with a disability can change the work environment of a company for the better, “because people become more aware, and it helps them to put things into perspective and see life in another way,” she explains.

The road to integration isn't easy but nor is it full of obstacles. About 60 people have accessed the work market through Fundatul so far. The foundation's work doesn't end with the signing of a contract, because they keep in touch to see how things are going.

In the case of Adrián and Manuel “they have exceeded all expectations and their motivation and progress has been amazing. They just need a few aspects of the job adapted for them, but only a few, and they need to be monitored in their tasks,” she says. “Their training was very basic to begin with, but they weren't excluded from any type of service, and they have responded very well”.

The work involves everything from carrying trays or polishing glasses, to making different types of coffee and other everyday tasks. “Some parents cry when their child is given this chance, because it is something they have always hoped for,” says Elena.

Álvaro Morales had that in mind when he began his new business project. “I have been at meetings and heard many parents ask what will happen to their child when they are no longer alive. What is important is that they have the chance to train and learn a trade,” he says.

In a recent interview, Javier Fesser, who directed the film 'Campeones' (Champions), responded to a question by asking “What is normal?” Álvaro agrees with that. “Here, they are treated like anyone else in the team. They need a bit of extra help but as far as we are concerned they are completely equal to anybody else, and that is what we are going to demonstrate,” he says.