A YouTube Cook with a Single-Handed Approach to Kitchen Creativity

March 14, 2018

“So, what’s your favorite thing about having a stump?” Alexis Hillyard asks her guest. They are standing behind the counter in a corner of her kitchen. A Microplane, a whisk, and other culinary accoutrements hang in a line on the wall behind them. She takes but a beat to respond:

“I think I like the fact that I’m different. Just that kind of simple fact that sets you apart from the crowd. Some people might see it as a negative thing, or a lot of people feel bad, but I see it as a way to get to know people and to share my story.”

Hillyard nods in knowing agreement: “A lot of people think ‘Aw, poor you, you only have one hand.’ And I’m just like, ‘No, this is the best thing in the world.’”

Her brand is one of unwavering positivity. That she was born with only a right hand—her left she adoringly refers to as her stump—is neither affliction nor afterthought. Instead, she’s built an entire career orbiting around a life with limb difference. Stump Kitchen, the operation she runs out of Edmonton, Alberta, is a YouTube channel, a series of cooking classes, and a line of merchandise adorned with her logo. She cooks her way through an impressive repertoire of vegan and gluten-free recipes (she was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance a few years back), often in the company of children, many of whom also live with some form of limb difference. Hers is a multipronged project with a battery of goals. I called Hillyard to discuss cooking with one arm, the importance of representing disability in the kitchen, and getting kids to feel comfortable making a mess—which sounds easier than it actually is.

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I’ve edited and condensed our conversation below for clarity and flow.

Valerio: What is Stump Kitchen, and how did you get started?

Alexis: Stump Kitchen is my YouTube show. It’s all about vegan and gluten-free cooking with one hand. I was born without my left hand, and I use my arm as a tool in the kitchen. I got started because I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance and later decided to go full vegan. It was hard to find good food out and about, so I started to cook my own. I found that it was super joyful, and I loved how I used my body in the kitchen, so I decided to film it. I didn’t think it would become anything, but people loved it, so I committed to making a video every week, and here we are. It celebrates diverse bodies, it celebrates different dietary needs. I cook with kids who also have limb differences and a host of other disabilities.

What do you think is the importance of seeing different types of bodies in the kitchen?

Having more diversity of people and abilities and bodies out there is great because it creates more awareness and opportunities and chances for younger folks to see themselves represented where they might not otherwise. I show different ways of doing kitchen tasks and celebrate different ways of approaching things. So if you can’t peel a potato like the pros, it doesn’t matter, you can do it in your own way or not at all and it’s still going to be okay. It’s about making cooking more accessible for where you are at.

It’s almost like your own set of hacks.

Exactly. In a lot of the episodes, I’ll name my “Stump Techniques.” I have the chicken wing technique, where I put a jar underneath my stump arm and use it to shake in ingredients, and it looks kind of like a chicken wing.

Your videos have a very fun, playful vibe—is that something you strive for?

When I’m in the kitchen, that’s how I naturally am. At first, I was a little nervous to get cooking because I didn’t really know what to do. But as soon as I realized I didn’t have to follow all the rules, it helped me relax and approach cooking in a more calm way. By adding some humor and joy, and also being okay with making mistakes and looking like a mess, it lets people know that it’s safe to be who they are, it’s safe to mess up, and anyone can give it a try—there’s no right way to do it. I wouldn’t be able to cook and have fun if it needed to be perfect. Cooking needs to be easy and accessible and open to imperfection.

Embracing messiness, in all forms.

Oh, exactly. I made an episode with my little kid friend Ethan, and we were making vegan pizza. We were pouring the pizza sauce onto our pizza base with our stumps, which is hard, so we had pizza sauce all over. Messes can be cleaned up, and it made the pizza even better.

A lot of your work centers around kids.

I have a master’s degree in education, so I’m automatically inclined to work with kids. I have a natural vibe with them that I really like.

And what do you think the kids are getting out of it?

Cooking is like its own little art form. They’re using their bodies and they’re estimating and they’re getting their hands and limbs into the ingredients and they’re feeling. It’s very tactile. They’re smelling a lot. They’re also getting acquainted with making mistakes. I’ve worked with a bunch of kids who are kind of nervous. They’re nervous about not knowing what to do. I’ll say Okay, throw that into the bowl. And they’re like, Is that okay? Can I actually throw it? Will I make a mess? Once they get loosened up, then a little part of their personality gets opened, and they get to express themselves more. It’s also a lovely way to teach food literacy. A lot of younger kids don’t get the chance to understand where their food comes from and what it looks like and what things are called. This is a great way to teach those basic food literacy skills early on.

How has YouTube been an important tool for you?

It creates space to connect with a diverse range of audiences: vegan food lovers, folks with limb difference, folks in the disability community, and people who just like a good, weird, funny YouTube show.

What have some of those connections been like?

Here in Edmonton, a lot of people I know plus some strangers have reached out to me, and I’ve been able to connect with them in person through cooking classes or give them advice around cooking in the kitchen with their kids with limb difference.

As soon as the show came out, a lot of people in my area approached me and were like Hey! I know somebody who has a kid with a limb difference, let’s meet, maybe you can film with them. So all of these kids with a limb difference all sort of came to me. Internationally, I’ve had families from Germany, Mexico, and other places send me pictures of them cooking with their kids. They’ll have notes with them: My kid has a stump just like you or This is how we use this in our kitchen in this different way.

What is next for Stump Kitchen?

I hope that I continue to grow my subscriber base, get more viewers, and get the word out there. Then eventually, as I grow the channel, I hope to take it on tour in a way. I’m working with a lot of people in my local area, but my goal is to organize a trip around North America so I can stop in cities and connect with kids and adults with limb difference and cook with them.

What do you hope people take away from watching Stump Kitchen?

I love it when I hear stories of people who try cooking for the first time or say something like I watched your show and now I don’t feel as scared about getting into the kitchen. The notion of taking away that initial stress is one of the main things. I also hope the people who watch approach things like limb difference and things like disabilities in their community as something that can be talked about, not something to shy away from. I want dialogue about it, so people don’t get stared at or talked about in negative ways. I hope that it’s something we can see more of and normalize because this is how it is.

You can support Alexis and the future of Stump Kitchen via Patreon.

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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.

1 Comment

Claudia T. September 25, 2018
How cool!