Chris Firth is busy transforming a water melon into a delicious fruit salad.

Chopping up fruit with skillful ease, he looks like a seasoned professional. But until Chris joined Foodworks cafe last year, he had barely set foot in a kitchen. Now, following a six-month work experience placement, he has been taken on as a part-time catering assistant.

Chris, 29, clearly loves working at Foodworks.

“I like being in the kitchen, and I’m more confident with cooking now,” he said.

“In the mornings I prepare fruit kebabs and jacket potatoes, and chop vegetables. I’ve learned about things like cooking meat, and temperatures and using different equipment. I like working in the cafe too, serving people.”

Chris came to Foodworks through Mencap and his potential was spotted early on.

“I saw so much flair in him,” said Foodworks Catering Services Manager Kerrie Lee-Barr. “His development was significant enough for us to take him on as a catering assistant.”

The Foodworks cafe, at Forster Square, provides training and employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities.

Foodworks, which opened in Bradford last summer, is the social enterprise training arm of Yorkshire Housing. Backed by Yorkshire Housing’s SupportWorks, which provides services such as housing support and community inclusion, Foodworks offers structured training and work placements, equipping people who have disabilities with both employment and life skills.

Of the 20 staff employed at Foodworks, 50 per cent have a learning disability. After an initial assessment, trainees undergo an induction in a nearby training kitchen at Barkerend.

“It’s like a giant domestic kitchen. The idea is that it looks like a familiar kitchen, rather than industrial premises,” Kerrie said.

“The initial training takes place here, tailored to individual needs. Often our trainees – or “studenees” as they’re known as – have more than one type of learning disability so we consider their complex needs. The training ranges from supporting someone in making a cup of tea safely to teaching skills they could potentially use in employment.

“We have a chap who’s gone on to work at Manningham Mills cafe. They’ve been incredibly supportive.”

Trainees are generally referred by social workers, and Kerrie says expectations have risen over recent years. “We’re seeing a new generation coming through who’ve had access to more opportunities than previous generations, and their parents are seeking less conventional daycare for them,” she said.

“There has been a shift in social attitudes and expectations. Parents of young people with disabilities are looking at employment potential for their school-leaving children.

“We provide real-world catering experience. As well as cooking, trainees also learn a much wider range of skills beyond the kitchen. A lot of them arrive saying they didn’t know how to shop, or use dials on ovens, or understand the instructions on food packets, so we address those issues too. We go shopping to local businesses, like Morrisons and the fruit and veg stalls at St James’s Market, and out on delivery rounds. There are opportunities to work in marketing, networking, administration and finance, which involves going to the bank and developing numeracy skills.”

Kerrie, who has been with Foodworks for three years, has a background in commercial catering. “I’ve always sought to empower and develop the skills of those deemed ‘disadvantaged’. It’s extremely rewarding to see someone learning new skills and becoming more independent,” she said.

“What I absolutely don’t want is for Foodworks to be a ‘pat on the back’ service. We deliver a quality product and customers come here because they can purchase good, freshly-cooked food that’s value for money.

“It’s important that our food reflects our personality. It’s fun, vibrant, colourful, a bit quirky, but high quality and wholesome. We’ve joined up with Bradford Good Food Award, promoting healthy eating, and have a silver award.

“We use local suppliers, like Lovebread, an artisan bakery in Brighouse where we’re looking to get trainees into the bakehouse.”

As well as staples like jacket potatoes, soup and sandwiches, the menu offers an all-day breakfast, both meat and vegetarian options, classic, lamb, chicken or bean burgers and mezze share plates with choices including ‘Irresistible Indian’ – fresh vegetable samoas, pakora and onion bahjis with homemade riata, pickled red onions and mango chutney – and a ‘Moroccan Medley’ of chargrilled vegetables, homemade hummus, falafel, flat bread and olives. Various breads are served with olive oil and balsamic glaze, and there’s a range of sweet treats.

Sandwich fillings include roast ham and mustard, brie and cranberry and smoked applewood cheddar with roasted veg and homemade mozzarella chutney.

Specials change daily. During my lunchtime visit yesterday I had a delicious goats cheese and butternut squash Wellington with salad. A group of people on the next table were sampling a taster menu for an event catering for 100 guests.

The cafe is available for private events, with bespoke menus. “We’ve seen a surge in food-related team-building events,” says Kerrie. “Food is a great ice-breaker and there’s that inclusivity of sitting around a table, sharing.”

Based upstairs in St Peter’s House, a Grade II-listed Victorian building, the cafe is light and airy, with a glass mezzanine overlooking the Bradford Cathedral grounds. The atmosphere is relaxed, with leather sofas dotted about, and tables and chairs on the terrace for al fresco dining.

The floor below is occupied by arts company Kala Sangam, which rents space to community groups – boosting the cafe’s custom.

“Kala Sangam run projects focusing on health and well-being through the arts, and we’re looking at ways of working in partnership,” said Kerrie.

Lesley Nash, 47, has been with Foodworks for two years. As well as learning to cook, she has lost a significant amount of weight, which Kerrie says is down to learning about food and developing a better understanding of what she eats.

“I never used to do much cooking but now I enjoy it,” says Lesley.

Nigel Halliday, 47, enjoys front-of-house work, meeting customers and serving food. “I work on the till, clean tables and talk to customers. I like meeting new people,” he says. Currently on placement four days a week, Nigel volunteers on the fifth day and accompanies Kerrie to public presentations about Foodworks.

Kerrie is keen to broaden the range of people benefiting from Foodworks. “Social inclusion isn’t just about people with disabilities. We’re working with homeless charity Emmaous on a furniture upcycling project, and we work a lot with Yorkshire Housing’s general needs tenants on getting longterm unemployed people on work placements,” she says.

For Chris Firth, the skills he’s learned at Foodworks have proved useful at home too. “I got married last November and I do all the cooking at home,” he smiles. “It keeps my wife, Sarah, happy.”

Foodworks is open Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 4pm. For more information call (01274) 306510 or 07767 426059 or visit