Autistic teen turns fear of food into cooking passion
When Chase Bailey was diagnosed with autism at 2, his mother feared he'd never enjoy a typical childhood. Indeed, he hasn't. Between appearances with celebrities and hosting his own cooking show, Bailey's life feels anything but typical.
During the past two years, the 13-year-old has spiced up ramen noodles with Korean-American street food guru Roy Choi. He has simmered butternut squash soup with Sting's daughter, Fuschia Sumner. And he has baked hundreds of bright blue frosted cookies for guests at an Autism Speaks gala in Los Angeles. There, he was introduced by Conan O'Brien.
The days when Bailey would eat nothing but pizza, chicken, French fries, chocolate chip cookies, and chips with dip almost seem like a faint memory.
"He wasn't even eating food until he was 8 years old," said Nick Shipp. He is executive chef at The Upper West. It is the Santa Monica, California, restaurant where Bailey helps cook dinner once a week. "For him to go from that to cooking and eating all kinds of different things, it's pretty remarkable."
After her son's diagnosis, friends and acquaintances prepared Mary Bailey for the worst. He'd never be able to have a job, some said. He'd probably never learn to socialize. And he'd never be independent.
"You just hear a lot of things that are downers," she said.
She immediately placed her son in school and therapy. At home, she struggled to get him to eat. Like many on the autism spectrum, Chase found food overwhelming. The sight, smell, feel and taste of almost everything put on his plate tipped his sensory system over the edge.
"I didn't like how it looked," he said. "I didn't like how it smelled."
Then he started watching cooking shows with his grandfather. He got hooked on seeing people enjoy the food they were eating. Within six months, he started asking to try some of the foods he saw on shows like Cooking Channel's "Eat St." and Food Network's "Chopped." Among his early requests: fried alligator, frog legs and beef tongue.
"He was just devouring it," Mary Bailey recalled with a laugh.
Two years later, he confided to his mother that one day he wanted to have his own cooking show.
"She was like, 'Why wait?'" Chase Bailey said.
Setting out with her home camcorder and using a friend's kitchen, they recorded the first episode of "Chase 'N Yur Face." Then they posted it to YouTube. The show quickly caught the attention of autism groups. Realizing the impact they could have, Mary Bailey began looking for ways to enhance the production. She hired a professional film crew and started incorporating cooking and shooting episodes into her son's homeschool curriculum.
Chase Bailey, using the cooking shows he watched as inspiration, started reaching out by email to chefs he admired. He invited them to tape episodes with him.
"It was no big deal," Bailey said nonchalantly. "I'm like, 'If they're doing it, I'm doing it.'"
In the show, a confident, charismatic Chase whips up everything from cupcakes to braised rabbit. The show, which now has more than 30 episodes online, has garnered tens of thousands of views.
"I love that there's a story behind it," said Sumner, an actress living in Los Angeles. She recently taped a holiday special with the teen. "Food is emotional."
The most challenging part, Mary Bailey said, has been learning how to produce a show. She spent 20 years in the corporate world before leaving a management position to focus full-time on her son. Chase Bailey said his biggest challenge was learning how to fry chicken while talking in front of a camera.
"To see your child go from little to no speech, no eye contact ... having extreme food aversions, all of these symptoms, to almost the exact opposite," Mary Bailey said, "I don't know, it feels miraculous."
Chase Bailey dreams of one day seeing his show on television. He also wants to open his own restaurant. He hopes his experience can help others with autism.
"Don't be afraid to be you," Chase Bailey said.
"Hear, hear," Sumner said. "Be yourself because everyone else is taken."