Approximately 15% of the 100,000 people in the UK with MS have the PPMS variant. There are no proven cures or treatments to slow its progression, and the future can be bleak. I was under no illusions in 1997 when diagnosed – this was a tough draw, a fight to the death.
What was quickly apparent was that it was up to me how to manage it. There were numerous theories about gluten-free diets and other food recommendations that were both radical and expensive. I started to follow some of these, boiling up tree barks to make disgusting drinks and visiting organic markets to buy chickens and vegetables at sky-high prices. It wasn’t long before I ran out of money and heart for my witches’ potions.
It was my dad who helped me steer me in the right direction. He had lived with type 1 diabetes for 30 years and had never bowed to it. His comment one day that if “I’d followed every doctor’s or dietician’s advice, I would have died a sad man long ago,” had great resonance.
As I later rummaged through my fridge, it dawned on me that my fear of the disease was dictating the course of the battle, and my bank balance. Inside, a selection of exotic vegetables and other products lay wilting or out of date, sacrifices to make me feel better. It was time to get back to basics. I began to revolutionise how I planned my weekly shopping budget and food intake. Like most people, I had about seven dishes I cooked on a regular basis, such as cottage pie or spaghetti bolognese. Meticulously breaking down each recipe, I was able to produce a definitive shopping list, reducing wastage and concentrating on buying only fresh produce, at a price I could afford.
It was a liberating experience, and my dad’s philosophy had opened my eyes. Life was to live and not to wallow in anger at one’s own plight. Immersing myself in everything food, I added to my repertoire and started feeling better for it. Herbs and spices became pivotal, bringing flavour and colour to my cooking, and the purchase of a food processor released the aromas of fresh pesto and curry pastes, wafting through my kitchen.
I had to make every penny count as I was largely dependent on benefits, so visits to the local fruit and veg market were essential. But by sticking to my shopping list, I reduced my weekly food bill by 35% yet still ate fresh food three times a day and found more energy and a mind working overtime.
My place became my mates’ restaurant of choice and my recipes soon went online, aimed at the wider population with tips on cooking and saving money. My steak and ale pie had an excellent ranking on Google, before I inadvertently lost my disabledchef.com domain name.
I moved on; got a job with a local charity, married Julie, and my priorities changed – but cooking always remained a big part of my life.
It hasn’t cured my PPMS. That’s confined me to a wheelchair and still attacks daily, but 20 years on from diagnosis, I’m still punching above my weight.
When the call went out on BBC1’s The One Show for challengers in their Beat the Pro cooking slot, I didn’t hesitate to enter my Lancashire hotpot in a head-to-head with their resident chef, Ricky Andalcio. It was a great chance to rekindle the disabled chef idea and put my reputation on the line. Since my victory was screened last month, I have resurrected the old site, with a slightly altered domain name, and I’ve started to upload many new recipes. It’s a work in progress – pretty much like cooking – but it’s good to have something to get your teeth into, as disability can often lead to people feeling cut off.
A study by Scope in 2014 found that 67% of people had a problem talking to disabled people, which leaves many of us lonely and depressed. That figure must change. Food is a great leveller and nothing tastes better than home cooking – it’s the elixir of life, in many ways, drawing people together.
My hopes for the site are that it will do just that.
For more information about The Disabled Chef and for some fantastic recipes, please visit thedisabledchef.com.