The Deaf Chef

UNLV grad Josh Jensen sets out to conquer the culinary world by using his cooking talents and continuing to turn his disability into an advantage

Josh Jensen is using his hands. We’re at Metro Pizza on East Tropicana Avenue, sharing garlic knots and talking about the 28-year-old’s ascending culinary career, but I don’t want to bug him while he’s eating. Jensen is deaf, and can only communicate through sign language—so I figure that when he’s using his hands to talk, he can’t eat lunch. Almost immediately, he sets me straight.

“Deaf people are never afraid to communicate,” says Jensen, through an interpreter. “I just tell people to be themselves. If you offend me, I’ll offend you back.” It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would try. “The Deaf Chef”—so reads the embroidery on Jensen’s tunic—is immediately likable; he’s generous and friendly, and has the confidence of someone who’s gotten good at this trade by keeping his head down and working hard. The Culinary Institute of America graduate recently received his degree from UNLV’s College of Hotel Administration, and he’s been working in restaurants since 2003, most recently at First Food & Bar in the Palazzo. He’s taken pains to learn every station in the kitchen, from garde-manger to sauté.

“You have to work hard, and you have to prove that you can do it,” Jensen says. “Whether you’re deaf or hearing, it doesn’t matter.”

Jensen hasn’t much use for workplace politics, and he has no difficulty speaking his mind—two traits that should serve him well when he leaves Las Vegas for a position in the banquet department at the Orlando, Fla., Marriott in August. Eventually he hopes to become Marriott International’s first deaf general manager, combining his two greatest enthusiasms: cooking and bookkeeping. His résumé, and his future plans, state the obvious so he doesn’t have to: The Deaf Chef is on his way, and his impairment is pretty much incidental to the journey.

“He prefers being in the hearing world,” says Carl Braunlich, a professor of hotel and restaurant management at UNLV who’s become a mentor to Jensen and, judging by the way they banter during lunch, one of his good friends. “He’s been my teaching assistant for three semesters, and what he does for himself has this amazing effect on my other students. Normally, a deaf person would be somewhat reticent and shy, but he’s totally flipping out. He’s crazy.

“We really can’t say the universe has done something for Josh,” Braunlich adds. “Josh has done something for us.”

Jensen’s confidence and determination are contagious; they inspired one of Jensen’s bosses at First, chef Rob Ryan, to learn the signs for every item on the menu. And that drive continually helps the Deaf Chef to turn his disability to an advantage.

“I get home early, because a lot of people stand around and talk after work,” Jensen says. “I’m not gonna stand around and chat; I’m just gonna get my work done. The first year I worked in a kitchen, I got promoted three times because of that.”

And his deafness spared him a lot of drama.

“I’ve worked with chefs who are chewing people out all over the place, but they never yell at me,” says Jensen, grinning. “They just smile and say, ‘Oh, hi!’”

The Deaf Chef’s time in Las Vegas was brief—he only arrived in 2009—and it is nearly done, but he’s taking a good amount of Vegas with him. He’ll miss the crew at First, the friends he’s made here, and trading jabs with his mentor.

“The interpreter makes you sound good,” Braunlich teases.

“So you’re telling me I’m actually stupid?” Jensen asks.

“On the edge,” Braunlich says.

And with that, Josh Jensen breaks into a hearty and audible laugh.

Why be a chef.

“I’m kind of a foodie, anyway, so, free food! You don’t have to pay for food, and you can eat all you want. What else is there? You save $500 a month on your food budget.”

How he does it.

“There are three different kinds of communication in the kitchen: voice, ticket work and technology. If they have tickets and computer monitors, then I’ll be just fine.”

Las Vegas on a day off.

The Deaf Chef likes Las Vegas’ golf courses and hiking trails, but those aside, “There’s really not that much to do. I go to all the different restaurants. … What else can you do in Las Vegas? Just walk the trails and hang out.”

Read my lips.

“One talent Josh doesn’t have is the ability to read lips,” says Carl Braunlich. The Deaf Chef immediately balks: “I can read the lips of beautiful women. I can’t read yours.”

Why Orlando.

“He’s being put in that location not because of his cooking abilities, which are significant, but because there are people there who will help him [to become] a major player at Marriott,” Braunlich says. “He’s sort of entering the farm league.”