A man who has his left eye removed smiles while wearing a chefs apron, standing inside a commercial kitchen

Craig remembers how hard it was to get a job. Now he employs others

Craig Shanahan had his left eye removed after he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of two.

He says he could see perfectly with just one eye, finished school and trained to be a chef.

Then, in 2014, he had a tumor that damaged his optic nerve and reduced his vision to just 6 percent.

Cooking is more about feeling and timing, says Mr. Shanahan.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

That didn’t stop Mr. Shanahan from fulfilling his dream of opening his own apartment. In 2021 he opened the Blind Chef Cafe and Dessert Bar on Penrith’s High Street.

“It’s really, really great to still be in the kitchen and still have a job,” Mr Shanahan told ABC Radio Sydney Breakfast.

“We have room for up to 58 people, so it’s quite a large cafe.”

Focus on accessibility

The 31-year-old has designed the café in such a way that it is easy for him to continue working.

In the kitchen, Mr. Shanahan finds his way around by following the edges of the benches. He folds his fingers out of the way of the blades while slicing vegetables and has a scale that tells him the weight of the measurements.

A man carries two plates of food at an indoor cafe
The color contrasts of the furniture allow Mr. Shanahan to find tables while he works on the passport.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

“I still cook the same way I used to. I’m a bit slower than I used to be,” said Mr. Shanahan.

“When I cook something on the grill, it’s more about touch or timing.”

He also designed the front of the house to accommodate his visual impairment. A wooden panel runs behind the tables, highlighting the tables

The back of a man's black t-shirt with a white drawing of a blindfolded chef on it
A love of food led Mr. Shanahan to a career as a chef.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

The chairs are black so he can tell when they’ve been left off the tables and not trip over them.

The plates and cups are monochromatic to contrast with the wooden style tables.

Mr. Shanahan has also made these decisions in favor of customers with disabilities.

“The biggest thing for me is that I made it accessible to other people,” said Mr. Shanahan.

“I have disability groups that come here and feel welcome…they really made me feel so happy and awesome that the place I provided is doing what I want.”

A woman wearing a black bandana holds a pair of thongs next to a man in a commercial kitchen
A little more care is needed for safety, says chef Carmen Gennari.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

A close colleague

The kitchen of the back cafe is filled with the sounds of chef Carmen Gennari casually chatting with Mr. Shanahan.

Mr Shanahan jokingly describes their working relationship as “like an old married couple”. Ms. Gennari laughs and says they have their differences.

While Mr. Shanahan can cook, on a typical day Ms. Gennari handles the cooking, so Mr. Shanahan acts more as a chef and manager, securing work, including catering jobs.

A woman in a black scarf and black apron behind a plate of pancakes and strawberries on a shelf in a commercial kitchen
Ms Gennari says Mr Shanahan is an inspiration to many.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

Ms. Gennari says a little more care is needed around him while he’s in the kitchen.

“You just automatically think he can see. It’s very hard to believe he doesn’t,” Ms. Gennari said.

“If you leave things on the floor or a knife on the edge of a bench — or something — you just have to be a little bit more careful that he’s there for his safety.”

‘Pretty amazing’

Recently, Mr. Shanahan was honored with the Employer of Choice award at the Blind Australian of the Year Awards.

“He’s an inspiration to a lot of people,” Mr. Gennari said.

“To do what he has done and overcome what he has [is] pretty amazing.”

A golden labrador dog sits on the floor and looks at guests seated at a table in a cafe
Mr Shanahan’s service dog, Rocko, acts as the café’s mascot.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

Mr. Shanahan remembers how difficult it was to find employment when he only had one eye. He hopes to give back to the disabled community by offering employment at his coffee shop.

“We’re trying to hire people who don’t really get a chance out there,” he said.

A man carrying two plates of food in front of a mural of a chef with a headband over his eyes
The café features murals of chefs wearing headbands over their eyes.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

Mr Shanahan wants the cafe to show how easy it is to accommodate people with disabilities and create a space where people “feel welcome”.

“I enjoy providing a great atmosphere and good food, but I also share awareness of disabilities and what people may not know about caring for disabilities.”

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