Cooking class helps those with brain injuries

Colt Munchoff was a former athlete who felt invincible until a childhood trophy smashed into the back of his head, reducing him to nearly nothing.

His punt, pass and kick award flew out of a box in the back seat of Munchoff's car when it was rear-ended on the freeway just outside La Jolla.

Responders took him to the hospital, where he was in a coma for 12 days.

When he came to, he couldn't walk, talk, eat or drink. His 23-year-old body was confined to a wheelchair, his invulnerable "Teflon days" seemingly done.

Yet for Munchoff, the irony of it all — a scenario where the "trophy takes out the athlete" — has never been lost.

"The whole thing is divine," he said, "that the trophy hit me in the back of the head, that it was my wake-up call, that it was the life-changing event … but it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

The now 43-year-old Newport Beach resident calls the 1993 car accident his "best thing" because for 18 years — with limited use of the left side of his body — he's been able to motivate others with brain injuries, gunshot wounds or other debilitating conditions.

He volunteers his time to help them thrive again, take care of themselves and achieve the degree of normalcy most people take for granted.

One way he does that is through his six-week Cooking with Colt class at B.R.A.I.N.'s headquarters in Cypress. The faith-based nonprofit, which stands for Brain Rehabilitation and Injury Network, is an advocate and provider for adults who have suffered from brain injuries.

Munchoff calls himself the "Emeril Lagasse of one-handed cooking." It's in his blood.

His grandmother ran a steakhouse; his mother had a catering and party-planning business. He's worked in his family's kitchens and is a culinary-school graduate.

Susan Rueb, a Huntington Beach resident and president of B.R.A.I.N., called Munchoff a "profile of healthy living and healthy behaving." He shows people suffering from brain injuries — many of whom don't show obvious signs of harm — that they can again do those day-to-day tasks.

Such injuries are very common, she said. According to B.R.A.I.N., every 21 seconds someone sustains a brain injury. It's more than the rates of breast cancer and heart attacks combined.

Munchoff's presence thus far at B.R.A.I.N., which serves some 150 people each week, has "absolutely electrified the crowd. Because we have a lot of people who have come back from huge, huge comas. They're back. They're walking, talking, beginning to really improve, just like Colt did."

Munchoff's cooking with the use of one arm isn't easy. There are specialized tools for such tasks: cheese graters with suction cups, kitchen shears and serrated knives, to name a few.

"Take one hand and put it behind you," Rueb said. "See what you do. It's tough."

Cooking with Colt uses donated food from Trader Joe's and donated equipment from Chefs' Toys in Fountain Valley.

When not volunteering, Munchoff — who, by no coincidence, wore an Indianapolis Colts hat during his cooking class last week — is a retirement specialist for a major life insurance company. He also has his own foundation that promotes adaptive cooking techniques.

He said his students must adjust and learn to focus on what's good in their lives.

"Because where we live in Orange County, it's the have and have-nots, right?" he said. "We all have a lot to be grateful for, and what we focus on is what we don't have. Our perspective is off."

He admits he's come a long way in his own perspective since his days as a young athlete, when he thought it was his given right to "slam-dunk basketballs and hit volleyballs."

"When I was 23, I was a taker. I was a taker and I took trophies, accolades and attaboys. And then when they taught me how to walk again, I didn't realize that was a blessing. That's when I realized it was better to give than to receive."

Twitter: @bradleyzint

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