“OMG YOU ARE FRIGGIN FANTASTIC! Who are you?!?!?!”
“do u use your feet a lot to do things.”
“My husband loves to cover my stump with things like peanut butter, chocolate syrup and whipped cream and then lick it off.”
Never read the comments, they say. Those left below Alexis Hillyard’s YouTube videos, however, are clearly an exception.
Hillyard’s YouTube series is Stump Kitchen, named so because Hillyard a) produces cooking tutorials b) was born without a left hand. Every week, she uploads an instructional cooking video, strewn with impromptu singing, improvised steps, and the occasional guest. Episode 42 features Natalee Pon, a fellow Canadian who was also born without a left hand. Sporting a top emblazoned with the words “Well, I’m stumped” and a half-shaved up-do, Hillyard towers over the petit Pon. They begin the video in fits of conspiratorial giggles. Slapping a naked foot on the kitchen table, Hillyard explains that they’re going to use their feet to prepare a chocolate pudding.
Faster than you can arch an eyebrow, the film cuts to the pair expertly slicing avocados with their trotters. A few minutes later, the chocolate pudding is ready to eat—straight out of the blender’s jug.
The chocolate pudding recipe is simple; Hillyard is no Heston Blumenthal. She’s no Nigella either, she swears at the blender and serenades the maple syrup. Other recipes are similarly easy to follow and peppered with funny asides: peanut butter cups, pasta Carbonara, and French toast that Hillyard cooks over a campfire. “I’ll take any excuse to cook over a fire cos it’s pretty much my favourite thing to do in the whole fucking world,” she grins at the camera.
Despite looking very different to mainstream food media, Stump Kitchen matters.
“Persons with disabilities are seldom covered in the media, and when they are featured, they are often negatively stereotyped and not appropriately represented.” The United Nations’ take on global media is especially true of food media, which comprises a pitiful number of openly disabled voices. One of these voices is JJ Goode, a food writer and co-author of MUNCHIES: Late-Night Meals from the World's Best Chefs, who has one arm.
“Part of the thing keeping me normal, even after all the projects I've worked on, is my arm,” he tells me. “My colleagues are all off writing their own cookbooks because they're such good cooks! And I'm still like, ‘Cooking is fucking hard.’”
I dig for other disabled chefs in mainstream media, and can only summon Channel 4’s Kitchen Impossible, Michelin-starred chef Michael Caines, who lost his right arm in a car accident, and blind MasterChef US winner Christine Hà. Slim pickings, especially when considering that 15 percent of the world’s population is disabled.
Until the industry catches up, Stump Kitchen leads the charge. Hillyard, and her many guests with limb differences, smash common stereotypes surrounding disability. They laugh, hard, rather than being laughable.
But Stump Kitchen didn’t begin with the purpose of celebrating non-normative bodies. Hillyard began cooking after cutting animal products and gluten from her diet for health reasons. As such, the recipes she demonstrates are vegan and gluten-free.
“I was also in a deep mental health struggle and it really helped me through that in a lovely way,” Hillyard tells me. “I took the joy that I was getting from using my stump in the kitchen and made it into a video series. I didn’t realise that other people might find joy in it.”
Since her first upload two years ago, Hillyard has amassed over two thousand global subscribers and 200,000 views on YouTube. Stump Kitchen brings in $1,460 per month on Patreon. What makes viewers so invested?
“I’ve worked on food shows for years,” says Paul Lampa, a chef who has worked on food programmes including The Great Canadian Baking Show. “[Stump Kitchen] is a new a refreshing approach to the conventional ‘dump and stir’ cooking show.”
Alternatively, Hillyard theorises: “There's a lot of different ways into Stump Kitchen. Like if you’re vegan, or if you have a limb difference, or if you like the way I sometimes wear sweatpants and no bra.”
“There's a lot of different ways into Stump Kitchen. Like if you’re vegan, or if you have a limb difference, or if you like the way I sometimes wear sweatpants and no bra.”
Hillyard’s open queerness is another way into Stump Kitchen. Her partner Alison Brooks-Starks used to film the show and sometimes appears in super cute couple videos. Around her home city of Edmonton in Alberta, Hillyard has received great IRL responses to her openness. “But,” she adds. “I will say that every time I put up a video that has some sort of LGBTQ content—and there’s been a few—I always lose a few subscribers.”
Her remaining subscribers include children and their parents. Hillyard caters for them with a child-friendly playlist; one without the swears and a roster of mini chef guests with limb differences. In a roasted Brussels sprouts demo, nine-year-old guest/future TV presenter Callie dons a pink My Little Pony onesie and jokes about her limb difference. “A shark bit it off!” she quips, before clarifying that, like Hillyard, she was born with one hand.
Although these kid-friendly videos manifest Hillyard’s unconventionality, they’ve managed to draw Stump Kitchen into the mainstream. Earlier this year, CBC (Canada’s national public broadcaster) commissioned Hillyard to do a six-episode web series, Stump Kitchen: Cooking With Kids.
“A lot of grown-ups get bogged down by worrying about making a mess in the kitchen, or keeping quantities exact, but Alexis' natural playfulness in the kitchen is such a good fit for cooking with kids,” Megan McChesney, senior digital producer at CBC Parents tells me.
The CBC series has helped Stump Kitchen build an admirable Canadian community. However, Hillyard seeks to extend this circle beyond her home country. She tells me: “The next thing is building my subscribers, building my Patreon, and getting to a point where I have enough income to travel to film, to feature people all over the world, and to do the collaborations that make me so excited.”
If the comments on Stump Kitchen are anything to go by, Hillyard has huge potential on the streets of Edmonton, on screens across the world, and in the spaces in between.
And, as one of her YouTube commenters points out, “You can tell a true chef by if she can cook on one leg or not."