Chefs are being inspired by people with special needs to make a big local impact

Doors Open Dishes is a Chicago-based program that pairs chefs with individuals with special needs to create recipes that help others.

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By Helen Ray

Nicole Schnitzler, a food writer based in Chicago, watched her brother Daniel take a bag of frozen vegetables out of the freezer and fill a bowl to the brim. He then topped the frozen veggies with a mountain of Kraft Parmesan cheese and began to dig in — gnawing on the frozen, cheesy bits.

Daniel is 40-years-old and was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. He's always had a passion for food and watching him make this meal made Nicole wonder: What if a professional chef could look at this dish and be inspired to make something fun that would appeal to all diners?

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For many chefs, food is very personal, and it's often a vehicle that inspires them to do good in their community. So, in September this year, Nicole started Doors Open Dishes, an organization that matches chefs with individuals with special needs to raise money for local social service programs.

Nicole witnessed how programs like Gateway To Learning, which provides special education and training for adults with disabilities, helped her brother foster important life skills, and told TODAY that Daniel's "time at Gateway is really fundamental for him in terms of that language development and how much he is able to benefit from that."

Nicole Schnitzler and her brother Daniel.

Gateway To Learning even has a culinary skills program and they've been able to help individuals secure jobs in the community.

But a statewide budget crisis has forced many social service agencies to cut programming and left Nicole concerned for people like her brother. "The lack of funding ... of the services that Daniel really needs was really concerning for myself and my family," she said.

So, every month Doors Open Dishes pairs one Chicago-based chef with a person with special needs to develop a recipe that's inspired by the individual's own favorite foods. That new dish then lives on the chef's restaurant menu for a month and the proceeds from that dish go directly to the individual's group home or a workshop.

Dish inspired by Daniel at Cyndy's Restaurant

Chef Christian Ragano of Cindy's restaurant in Chicago jumped at the chance to join Doors Open Dishes for their first partnership. He created a dish based on Daniel's favorite foods like chicken and frozen veggies. The result? A fried chicken dish with a sweet corn pudding made of corn, peas, and carrots. "The more people we can get behind this and behind Doors Open Dishes, the more impact we can have on the specific community," Ragano told TODAY.

Nicole hopes to expand Doors Open Dishes to other cities in order to raise money for group homes serving those with disabilities all over the country.