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Unread 05-16-2009, 02:25 AM   #1
Miss-Delectable
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Deaf chef cooks up own sign language in kitchen

Deaf chef cooks up own sign language in kitchen

Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows the noise in the kitchen can be deafening: orders being shouted, pans clanging, the occasional dish shattering.

For cook Siau Lioe, though, his kitchen at the Bethesda Marriott Suites is anything but noisy.

The Indonesia native, 37, was born deaf. Having learned Indonesian sign language, which is different than American sign language, he had to adapt to both his lack of hearing and a language barrier in the hotel's kitchen.

"At first, it was quite hard but then we solved these issues and we always have our ways to communicate," Lioe, of Silver Spring, wrote in an e-mail. "…I can understand when chef speaks slowly and uses simple words and easy words, but chef uses his hands, which are totally different with American Sign Language."

Lioe and Chef Stephen Malfatti, executive chef at the hotel, have developed their own system of communication.

When Malfatti needs to get Lioe's attention, he'll take one of the restaurant's heat lamps and shine it toward Lioe. Then comes a series of hand gestures: an open hand across the abdomen stands for a slab of ribs, flapping his arms means chicken wings, and tickling the palm of his left hand with the fingers on his right hand replicates a crab, for crab cakes.

Malfatti will also write down many of his instructions, so Lioe can make sure he understands them.

"When I first got here, people kept complaining about him messing up orders," Malfatti said. "I said, ‘Just write it down.' So now we have this system."

And it works. Malfatti said since he's begun writing things down three years ago Lioe has gotten almost no orders wrong, and when the kitchen is too busy for writing the hand signals work just as well.

Keith McNeill, general manager of the hotel, said because of Lioe's skills he didn't even know the cook was deaf when he first started.

"I was shocked when I found out he was deaf; his level of quality is amazing," McNeill said. "I was just standing there one evening and saw him making hand signals and was just amazed we had a deaf chef in the kitchen."

Lioe's story, though not without its bumps in the road, embodies the American dream, McNeill said.

Lioe and his wife, Christiana, moved to the United States in 2002. A trained computer programmer in Indonesia, Lioe couldn't be hired in the United States because he had poor English skills and a certificate that wasn't recognized, he said.

While taking English writing skills classes at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Lioe began work as a dishwasher at the hotel.

At the hotel, his eyes started wandering to the other side of the kitchen.

"Whenever I got a chance on slow times, I would always seek some time to learn how to cook," Lioe wrote. "Fortunately I had a kind supervisor who was willing to teach me everything he knew and everything I needed to be a cook."

In the kitchen now, Lioe is always smiling, whether behind the grill or the stove. In addition to loving his job, he said moving to the United States has allowed him other benefits.

"I can enjoy TV programs with the text caption," he said. "All the facilities given by the U.S. are totally unavailable in my country. That's why I would like to stay in the U.S."
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