At just 21 years old, Maryland-based Jeremiah Josey is a baker, model and inspirational speaker on the topic of autism. He has walked the New York Fashion Week runway, appeared on Steve Harvey’s talk show three times, been named a 2020 Doug Flutie Fellow and was included in The Mighty list of the top 14 autism influencers. Josey co-wrote a children’s book on autism with his mother, called “Here’s What I Want You to Know,” and they’re working on their second book about Black identity and Black Lives Matter. He has cooked alongside top chefs like Christina Tosi, Marcus Samuelsson, Duff Goldman and Kwame Onwuachi. In the latest edition of Voices in Food, Josey shares his experience of living with autism and encouraging people with disabilities to pursue their dreams.
On Growing Up With Autism
I don’t remember much of my childhood, except that I was always very happy and playful. I enjoyed spending time with my family. I first came to know that I was autistic when I was a pre-teen. Until then, I really didn’t understand what autism meant and why I was exhibiting certain behaviors. I would have outbursts in school and was unable to focus. I would recite lines from my favorite movies out loud and disrupt class. My teachers and peers didn’t understand me. I felt isolated and frequently got bullied.
When I was old enough, my mom had a conversation with me about autism and explained why I was different from the other kids. As a teenager, I attended a private school, which had a dedicated staff that helped me navigate my autism.
On His Love For Baking
My passion for food started as a pre-teen. When I would visit my grandma over weekends, she would make me eggs in a nest. I loved it so much that I asked her to teach me how to cook it. That’s when we started cooking together regularly. As we progressed through savory and sweet recipes, I discovered that my real passion was baking. We made pumpkin pies, cheesecakes, cookies, tarts and pies. Desserts are my favorite part of the meal, so I liked eating them too!
“Most high-functioning autistic children like myself thrive from having purpose and routine. When I followed the steps and made a whole cheesecake all by myself, I felt like I accomplished something.”
I didn’t just enjoy the act of baking with my grandmother, it also helped me overcome my disability. The baking process requires precision, focus and organization. It provides structure, and having these tools really helped me navigate autism. Most high-functioning autistic children like myself thrive from having purpose and routine. When I followed the steps and made a whole cheesecake all by myself, I felt like I accomplished something. It gave me confidence and allowed me to believe in my abilities. My grandma and everyone who tried my cheesecake was very proud of me, too. I felt like I could achieve anything I set my mind to.
On Spreading Autism Awareness To Help Other Kids
When I first walked onto the stage of The Steve Harvey Show on NBC in 2018, and I saw Steve Harvey in front of me, my jaw dropped. “Oh my gosh! Is this really Steve Harvey in the flesh?” I said to myself. Having no prior public speaking experience, I was very nervous. I was even surprised that a celebrity like him wanted to speak to me. But he asked me to be myself and have a good time. So I did, and told the audience that I was determined to not let autism come in the way of my goals. Everyone who watched felt really inspired and started to know who I was. I also gained much self-confidence that day.
I travel around the world visiting schools and spread awareness about autism. Sometimes, when autistic kids are feeling down, they reach out to me for encouragement and support. I speak to them and their parents on the phone, via Zoom and through social media. I also post videos on my YouTube channel, Jeremiah’s Cooking Adventures . I tell the kids to be more determined and not let the disability deter them. No matter what your disability is, nothing can stop you from pursuing your dreams. I tell their parents that they have a good kid and they should stay by their side and continue loving them, and be there for them.
On Pursuing A Career In The Culinary Field
When my baking started to improve, I realized that it was not just going to be a hobby for me. I wanted to be a professional pastry chef. It is where my talent was and what made me feel ecstatic. My mom and I reached out to The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and I started attending in fall 2020. It was the first time I went away from my family to live alone. It was hard at first. I felt homesick. But I learned to be independent and to advocate for myself.
It has been challenging to communicate and socialize with other students who are not like me. Sometimes, they take offense to things I might do or say, especially if they don’t understand my condition. I know that raising awareness takes time and rather than taking it personally, I stay positive and keep an open mind about it. I educate my instructors and students at CIA on autism and explain to them why it is difficult for me to communicate socially and that I really can’t help it.
Another difficultly I have is with the pace of the classes. For example, it gets very hectic in the kitchen during baking and pastry class. I have to work faster, my pastries have to come out perfectly. I am trying to be more prepared so I can keep up.
On Receiving Support From His Mother
My mom has been instrumental in helping me succeed. She has always been there when I needed her, not just as a mom, but as a confidant and as a coach, too. Though I am in New York City now, away from her, she still works with me daily on maintaining deadlines, helps me manage my time and my school work. She advises me on how to conduct myself as it relates to interactions with girls, and encourages me to do my best.
On Dreaming Big And Goals For The Future
I am taking it one step at a time. After finishing culinary school, I want to do an internship and externship. I am also doing some artwork and writing down ideas for what I want to do in the long term.
One day, I want to open my own bakery or pastry shop and call it “Jeremiah’s Cakes and Shakes.” I also want to have my own cooking show, a sort that nobody in the world has ever invented. It would use a mix of live action and cartoon characters. Me and an animated puppy would bake in the kitchen together.