You are here:

"cooking Without Looking" Helps Blind Cooks

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Palm Beach Post, September 30, 2004.

A television cooking show for the blind and visually impaired--now there's a concept you don't see everyday--ha ha.

"If I had a dollar for every joke I've heard about it, I'd be talking to you from Paris right now," said Renee Rentmeester, the producer of Cooking Without Looking.

The first of 13 segments of the series featuring blind or visually impaired hosts, cooks and live audience was videotaped Sept. 15 at the WXEL-Channel 42 studios in Boynton Beach.

"Everyone has to eat, right? And it's a dependency, not being able to cook, or not thinking you can do it. Once the visually impaired see others who are totally blind working in a kitchen, it may help take away their fear of getting in the kitchen," Rentmeester said.

The taping at WXEL was done before an audience of sight-impaired and totally blind people. They loved the banter that those without vision would throw at the production crew, all of whom had their sight.

"How do I figure out where the camera is?" said host Allen Preston, whose black Labrador guide dog, John T., rested quietly behind the cooking counter, out of the camera's view.

"Look for the red light," said one cameraman. He groaned, immediately realizing his blunder, while Preston said, "I'm looking, but I still can't see it!"

The audience laughed.

Cameraman Howard Seelig hadn't taped with the blind before, but said, "It's no different than working with anybody else. Sighted people still can't see the cues or read the TelePrompter."

All in the cast were eventually fitted with earpieces to hear various prompts. Preston read from a large-print script at times, held a mere 2 inches from his face. A polished speaker, he helped cue the others.

"I excelled at speech in college," he said. "They gave me highest marks, saying I was phenomenal at making eye contact with my audience!"

From birth, he's had few nerve endings in the ocular nerve, and sees only shadowy movement and high contrasts of light and dark.

Preston, of West Palm Beach, is the spokesman for the graduate program of the Southeastern Guide Dogs. He's also active in the Lions Club, the Braille Club and his homeowners association.

Mostly, however, he's an advocate for rights for the sight-impaired and blind, with a focus on transportation. It was most pronounced during Hurricane Frances, when there was no way for them to get around for ice or water. "We had to depend on the kindness of friends. It shouldn't be that way, however. We want to be independent; we're willing to pay our way, but the resources aren't there," he said. "But don't get me started--I have to get back to work here."

"A strange environment"

The 30-minute show took longer than normal to tape; the "cast" and crew were there a full eight hours.

"We hadn't practiced together, and everybody was in a strange environment. And really, there are a lot of people who get really flustered in front of a camera if they're trying to cook," Rentmeester said.

But the ease with which the actual cooking segments came off was inspiring--and the cooks clearly wanted to show they were in control, despite the occasional mishap.

"A lot of people who are newly vision-impaired are afraid to go into the kitchen. That's just not right: I'm totally blind and I cook almost every day," said Celia Chacon of Pembroke Pines.

She's a former caterer and legal worker from a Chicago suburb who lost her vision 12 years ago after suffering retinal necropathy.

"It's important for the visually impaired to see someone who's blind doing all of the cooking, because it makes it a lot easier to pass along tips for safety and give them confidence, too," she said.

That's the other reason Rentmeester chose a cooking show rather than just a talk show.

Rentmeester, who has more than 20 years in TV production in Miami, has the statistics to back up the interest in a TV show for the visually impaired.

"A study by the American Foundation for the Blind showed that 98 percent of people with slight or no vision watch at least 24 hours of television a week," she said. That compares with 96 percent of all other households.

"TV was my passion, and I wanted to do something with it beyond a reality TV show or something that meant nothing. With this show, I'm actually doing something good with television and reaching out to people who have very few programs specifically for them. Most of the shows are so old, their copyright has run out.

"It's also aimed at those who may be thinking they can't do this," Rentmeester said.

Chacon adeptly proves them wrong. She will appear every week with the host, while the other segment will feature a guest "cook."

For this segment, Chacon prepared easy-cheesy potatoes, a potato au gratin. Every action was accompanied by either Preston or Chacon describing her movements and telling how she handles the complications of working around burners and knives without vision.

"How do you know when the oven is set at 350 degrees?" Preston asked her.

"I have raised dots--they come in large and small--on the buttons of my stove. One is for the 'set' button, one is for 'bake' and the other is for the temperature control. I know by pressing the button a certain number of times when it's at 350, then it beeps when it reaches that temperature," she said.

By using a variety of shapes and weights of bowls and containers, Chacon knows by feel what's in them. She can add things to the pot by touching the pot's rim. "People ask how I tell salt from sugar. Simple--I taste it."

Preston pointed out that all the senses are used when sight is missing. "You can actually smell when a dish is cooking or just about done, can't you?"

Chacon also deftly handled knives and peelers, demonstrating how she could differentiate between the peeled portion of the potato and the unpeeled. She used the end of the peeler to dig out the eyes, and used a cutting knife to dice the potato. Her hands guided the knife's blade.

"Really, these safety tips are for everyone," she said. All pot handles are turned parallel to the countertop; they can't be accidentally snagged on clothing or knocked off and spilled. Knives are placed parallel to the counter edge, with the blade facing away from the cook, and the handles always placed in the same direction.

"It's all how you adapt," Chacon said.

Overcoming "little things"

Some fumbling occurred, but the cooks continued.

"That's OK," Rentmeester said. "In any other production, I'd edit out those mistakes so it would appear seamless. But we actually want to show Celia losing the scallions or having to feel around for the knife. In our first segment, our cook stuck his hand directly in the whipped cream, thinking it was a white towel. We left that in. We want other visually impaired people to know you can overcome these little things, and that everyone is going to make a few mistakes. But it shouldn't stop you--you just move on."

And you do it with humour.

At the end of her segment, Chacon is shown levelling the potatoes with her hands in the casserole dish, then putting cheese over them in an even layer.

"There!" she said to Preston. "How does that look?"

"Looks fantastic to me!" he said, laughing.

For the second segment, guest "chef" Philip Goldstein of Fort Lauderdale made his famous "gourmet" meatloaf.

Preston introduced him, and asked about his sight impairment.

"I've been totally blind for eight years," Goldstein said.

"How do you become a blind person?" Preston asked.

"I put my finger in the wrong eye," Goldstein deadpanned.

Goldstein, who says he's in his early 50s, has a background in the restaurant and gourmet food business in New York City, but his success came from working as a music producer during the disco era, eventually creating his own label and booking acts. Eight years ago he contracted retinal necrosis, and lost his vision. He's now in computer classes at the Lighthouse for the Blind, hoping to get back into the music business.

He and Preston practiced their movements several times, with Goldstein demonstrating how he uses differently shaped bowls to tell his ingredients apart. "But no glass ones," he said. "I don't have any glass in my kitchen at all--not even drinking glasses."

But he cooks all the time, he said. "I've been cooking since I was 5 years old, helping my mother. I love to cook. I make my own pasta sauces, with all fresh herbs, everything from scratch."

Mastering a meatloaf

Making the meatloaf, he grated the onion, demonstrating how he always grates away from himself and grates only half the onion. "Use the other half for something else," he said. "Otherwise, you'll cut your hand."

His grater caught the gratings, and he flipped the box of onions into the mixture. From cups and bowls he identified by touch, he added a beaten egg, added some garlic powder, herbs, soy sauce, bread crumbs and ketchup to the ground sirloin, then donned rubber gloves to mix it all together.

He then patted it out into a loaf pan--he recommends disposable aluminum pans that don't burn your hands even right out of the oven. "Or, you can put a cookie sheet under it to prevent spills."

He brushed the meatloaf with ketchup and topped it with bacon strips and few small handfuls of Parmesan cheese. Like most other cooks, he rarely measures anything, usinng his hand as measuring gauge or a pinch or two of this or that. "I'm always successful," he said.

"And this is what the finished product looks like," he said, holding up an already baked one for the camera. Perfection.

Making a difference

Annette Watkins, also visually impaired, is the host of the third segment in the show--an informational chat that focuses on people in the community who are making a difference for the blind. She introduced the Lapp family, Bill, his wife, Carolyn, and teen daughter Laura. Bill and Carolyn are blind; he from birth and Carolyn for 14 years following a car accident.

Watkins talked to the West Palm Beach couple about raising a sighted family, and dealing with obstacles such as transportation and discrimination.

The Lapps have begun the Florida Outreach Center, an organization for the blind run by the blind or visually impaired.

"We wanted to share our experiences with others who are newly vision-impaired, to teach them what they need to know to become independent," Carolyn said. "We have positive blind role models teaching others how to accomplish things like taking care of finances, cooking and getting the support they need."

Rentmeester was pleased after the taping: "We have enough for an hour here!"

The recipes featured will be displayed thanks to a computerized scanner from Magnifying America, a Coral Springs company owned by John Palmer. He's currently the sole underwriter for Rentmeester's shows.

"She tried for years to get funding and no one would come forward. This is such a great thing, we said we'd do it," he said.

Rentmeester and her foundation, the World Vision Foundation, are looking for other corporate or individual sponsors but are up against another type of discrimination, she said.

"This is really an entertainment show, for blind people. But whenever you say that, the companies think it's a charity thing, as though blind people don't deserve entertainment--they only should be learning and getting useful information. Well, how much more useful can you get than helping them become independent?" she said.

Rentmeester is contracted to produce 13 of the shows, with the first to air next month on WXEL. After the 13 are produced, if she can get money, she wants to give the program to all the Public Broadcasting stations around the country--for free.

"None of us are in this for money. None of us are getting paid, except the production crew here at WXEL. Lee Rowand and Fred Flaxman of the station have been so supportive of this project," she said.

If it takes off and she can find other sponsors, she wants to do even more programming for the sight-impaired and other people with a variety of disabilities. "I want to create ADTV, with travel, entertainment and all types of programming that serves this very broad community," she said. "Blindness and other disabilities cut across all the racial, age and social barriers--it could happen to any one of us at any time. I want to take the PC (political correctness) out of it, and have fun, and entertain, and still give them a way to become more independent and get more out of their lives. It's really my passion."

Editor's note: Air dates for the first episodes of Cooking Without Looking on WXEL-Channel 42 will be announced in the Table Talk column in an upcoming Food & Dining.

Copyright (c) 2004, The Palm Beach Post.

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.