For many years, before losing my sight, I worked as a professional chef. I spent hours working in massive hotel kitchens and ran large contract catering operations. I had also worked as a lecturer at a top culinary school. Eventually I took the plunge and opened my own restaurant. I loved and lived food. It was my life. It was my everything…
Then I lost my sight and the thought of ever returning to kitchen work frightened the pants off of me. Just the idea left my mouth dry. The apprehension was too overwhelming. I would surely cut myself or leave burn marks all over my hands. The idea that I may mess up a dish was an unbearable thought for me. The idea of cooking without sight was not something I could ever face.
Months passed and I again became comfortable in my own skin. People had told me that I would get used to living in the dark, but I have to confess, I thought they were lying. They were right and I was wrong. Time had healed me. Time had given back a big chunk of my confidence. I was mobile again. With that, my old passions and cravings for the kitchen had returned. I longed for the smells; I longed to touch the produce; I longed to here the sizzle in the pan. It had been almost a year and I just had to get back into the kitchen.
My journey back into the culinary world was however a slow one. I started by doing some simple things; peeling the potatoes and very carefully dicing up onions.
My choice of tools changed somewhat. I swopped my large traditional chef’s knife for a small serrated paring knife. I preferred to chop and work on a rimmed plate, rather than the usual cutting board. The edge gave me some control. A border of sorts to keep the pieces from flying all over the table. The work pace was much slower, but I enjoyed myself non-the-less. It was great to recapture all my old skills; to rekindle this love affair that I have always had with food. A new test. To challenge myself in a new way; I have always loved a challenge after all.
After concocting a few small and simple dishes alone, my confidence came back. Not only did it come back, it soared. I was working faster and more surely than ever before. The challenges became greater as I tested and retested myself. I honed my skills through trial and error – mixed in with a few ladles of frustration and a whole lot cussing.
It has not been perfect every time, not by a long shot. Patience and perseverance have been essential. There have been some flops, cakes that did not rise (because I forgot to add the baking powder – damn those sighted people). There have been overcooked steaks, undercooked fish and many pots have boiled dry. But there have been some masterpieces:
-Black pepper crusted fillet of beef, flambéed in brandy and finished with a ‘beurre blanc’ (burnt butter) sauce.
-Slow roasted ‘Greek-style’ leg of lamb, with fresh rosemary, a squeeze of juice from a fresh lemon and heaps of crushed garlic
-French-style ‘dauphinoise’ potato bake
-Rare roast beef with freshly baked Yorkshire pudding and home-made gravy
-Pulled pork seasone ‘Jamaican-jerk’ style
-Home-made Italian meatballs in a rich tomato sauce with shavings of ‘parmigiano reggiano’.
My cooking style and techniques had evolved. I had to listen to the sounds of things searing in a pan. I had to smell and taste and then smell and taste again – all good chefs should do this anyway. I avoided purchasing any of the blinf friendly kitchen tools I had been told about. Kitchen scales that call out the weight to you and little devices that beep when a glass was nearing full. I let my instinct guide me. I never cared much for using such accurate measuring tools anyway before I lost my sight.
I had to quickly train my family and housemates on the importance of putting things back where they belonged. Not only must a specific object be on the shelf it was meant to live on, it must be in its specific position on that shelf. It had taken me some time to get my wife and family to respect and understand this rule. The blind guy and his OCD. Digging in the freezer was easy when you knew where things were located and a massive frustration when you did not.
I quickly found a way to integrate the amazing technologies available to blind people. I downloaded a free application called ‘TapTapSee’. I was able to take a picture of most items and the app would read back what it saw. This made it easier for me to find things in the kitchen – it is so smart that it even reads labels when items are held upside down. After all, when making a peach cobbler, you don’t want to open up a can of baked beans.
Going through the spice rack is always a challenge. It is an adventure in its own right. If you allow it to, it can also be a journey around the world. Sniffing out the salt, pepper and herbs is one thing. Many times, I was left sneezing and gagging from chilli flake filled nostrils.
Using the senses that I still have, helps me to truly appreciate the cooking experience. Handling each item to gauge its weight, size and texture. Smelling all the aromas from the raw ingredients (damn that chilli). To the hearty aromas that filled the air when something delicious is brewing. Listening to the crackling of a pork belly roast pop as it blisters under the grill. Best of all is tasting, figuring out how to balance the flavours and create wonderful food memories.
I still have all my fingers, my hands are not covered in burn marks. And although my nostrils sometimes burn from snorting the chilli, my belly is full and I am satisfied.
Would anyone like to come for dinner?