Alexis Hillyard is the award-winning Canadian host of Stump Kitchen, a web show about cooking vegan, gluten-free recipes with guests. Alexis was born with congenital limb difference, and always finds ways to make her “stump” a focus in how she works in the kitchen.
We interviewed her about how her show got started and why it’s so important to her.
Q: How did you get the idea for Stump Kitchen and get the show started?
I decided to go vegan four years ago, after having been vegetarian for a long time. I had also recently been diagnosed with a gluten-intolerance. These things combined made me think I really needed to cook for myself, as it’s tricky to find gluten-free vegan meals.
But I didn’t have any kitchen experience and I was kind of nervous to try it out! You think you have to be a professional in the kitchen, you’ve got to have the experience. After some coaxing from a good friend and finding some recipes, I just got in there. I found out pretty quickly that I loved it! I loved how natural it was to use my arm with limb difference (or stump, as I call it now) as a tool.
Long story short, my partner thought it was really cool and noticed how much fun I was having, and was like: “You should film that!” So I did. At first I filmed it just for myself, but eventually found out that people really loved it! So it eventually became a weekly video project.
A year later I found I was able to turn Stump Kitchen into my full-time gig. People love it because it’s a double whammy: it’s for people who want to know how I cook with my arm, and also people who want to know how to prepare vegan/gluten-free recipes!
Q: Your enthusiasm in your videos is quite infectious, it’s clear you’re having a great time. Where does all that energy come from?
Believe it or not, I only drink one cup of coffee a day. As a child I got to do lots of different things, I was in dance for a while, I did drama, choir. I’ve always been in front of an audience so I’m very comfortable doing that.
I also have an education background and have worked with and taught children, so that might be where a lot of my energy comes from!
Q: How do you find your guests for the show? Do you discuss ahead of time how you want the show to go or just turn the camera on and start filming?
There is definitely a lot of free-flow. The guests themselves at first were just friends and family. After I started becoming more popular, I had people contacting me saying: “Hey! My kid looks like you. Do you want to meet them? Can they be on your show?” So parents were reaching out to me to connect me with my guests like Ethan and Callie.
It all spiraled from there. My guests at first were local, but I’ve started connecting more with parents worldwide whose children have a limb difference.
I don’t plan the way the episode runs, but I definitely link the recipe to people I think it would be fun to make it with. Otherwise, none of it is planned – you lose some of the magic when you try to script things too much! Not having a plan also helps take the pressure off when filming.
Q: Let’s talk about the title of the show. You’re always making sure your arm with limb difference is a highlight for adaptive cooking and making it the subject of a lot of jokes. Why is that important to you?
I had never used the word stump to describe my arm until adulthood. I would use terms like “baby hand” or “lefty” – that kind of stuff. As I grew older, the term “stump” really fit for me. Language is so personal. There are people who don’t want to use that word, they don’t like it. For me, I find it empowering.
The humor and playfulness come from when I was young. My sister is a couple of years younger than me, and she would love it when I put on shows for her with my arm. And I used to do little puppet shows for her where I gave my stump a little personality. It’s always been an active part of my creative life, and a playful part of my life, so it was a natural fit to make it a playful aspect of my videos.
Q: Were you self-conscious at all as a child about your limb difference?
I was very lucky in that I didn’t experience a lot of situations where I was picked on or bullied. Once in junior high, someone stuck her arm in her shirt and waved at me to make fun of me in a derogatory way.
I felt like I had this pit in my stomach. I decided to ignore it, I didn’t really have any other coping techniques. Around that time I was in a dance show, and I saw the video, and it was the first time I really recognized how different I was than everybody else. So for a few days, I was sad that I looked different and angry I was born this way.
It literally lasted 2-3 days, I just had to cry it out and talk to my mom. After that, I got it out of my system and was back to “Oh yeah, this is fine, this is who I am.” Everybody liked me for who I was.
There were times that I would get self-conscious when people would stare at me for too long. But from a young age, I was always well practiced at speaking to people about it, and this made me confident to talk about it versus hiding it and not engaging with anyone.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from watching your show?
I love how this show has turned into a thing that is expanding possibilities not only for people with limb difference to cook but for acceptance of different ways of living in the world.
I think for kids, whether they have limb difference or not, say: “Hey, there’s a kid who looks different than me, they’re doing this thing, it’s cool, it’s normal.” I am giving them the vocabulary and knowledge so that everyone can be more equipped to converse with folks who look different than them in a kind way.
Q: Have you had lots of outreach through your channels about how your show may have helped people?
Yeah, it’s been amazing. It rolls in all the time and often comes when I least expect it. I’ve had parents from Germany or the States say “Hey, your videos have helped us as a family cook together, and my kid is trying cooking now. They are using their arm in similar ways that you do, and we’re having fun in the kitchen.”
I had one teen from the States who used to always hide his arm in his pockets. He messaged me and said that thanks to my show he doesn’t hide it anymore. I had an older woman message me saying that she was always scared to try cooking because they didn’t think that they could. But after watching the show realized that it was possible.
It’s so wonderful and overwhelming to receive those notes, I tend to get one at least once a week.
Q: What are some of your favorite recipes that you’ve cooked up on the show?
Anytime I get to make guacamole I love it, because it’s simple, quick, fresh, and uses so many “stump techniques” as I call them: juicing a lime, mashing an avocado; I really like to make sure I get my limbs in the food.
I made vegan “eggs” with my partner a couple of weeks ago. They look like real eggs but have no animal products in them at all.
Q: Can you tell me a bit more about your video project for limb difference awareness month?
For a couple of years now I have been a Canadian ambassador for the Lucky Fin Project in the States. It’s been lovely. Through them, I’ve been connected to so many people with limb difference. Last year for limb difference awareness I did a bunch of videos about myself, answering questions people submitted. This year I thought instead of me doing all the talking, I interviewed people with limb difference from around the world and highlighted their voices in a bunch of different videos.
They are grouped into different themes about limb awareness, it’s such a lovely way for people to learn from a video that they are allowed to stare, allowed to have questions, and get more information about how different people live without having to meet them in person!
Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Alexis! Final question, what’s next for Stump Kitchen?
You’re very welcome!
I’ve got a bunch of CBC Parents collaboration episodes coming out, some are online already with a few more coming out soon on cbc.ca.
I’m on Patreon, that’s how I get a lot of my funding. I’m looking to grow to my next goal so I can travel more first around North America and then the world to meet other kids with a limb difference and record my show in new places!