Blind World Magazine

The blind now have a cooking show of their own.

November 12, 2005.
Tallahassee Democrat, Florida.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - Ken Lexer can cook pasta primavera like a pro.

Every Tuesday, he feeds 200 people at a local soup kitchen, and they know they're going to get something special on his shift - like the time he made mini-pizza, using donated bread. Not having the freshest ingredients doesn't stop Lexer.

Neither does the fact that he is legally blind.

Lexer, 54, of recently was a guest chef on the new show Cooking Without Looking.

The show teaches cooking skills and kitchen safety to blind people and those with impaired vision. Show producers put together an audio-heavy program with play-by-play descriptions. It also helps that the visually impaired hosts describe the action, producers said.

Each show features a visually impaired or blind audience, three hosts with different stages of vision loss and a guest host who shares a favorite recipe.

Lexer served up some Oriental stir-fry.

"It smells so good," said Allen Preston, 56, of West Palm Beach. Preston is a former high school shop teacher and show host who lost his vision during childhood. His service dog, John T, a black Labrador, sits close by.

"I'm putting in some fresh garlic," Lexer says, as he maneuvers a silver spatula in a wok. The aroma of garlic and tangy ginger lingers.

After suffering a stroke eight years ago and being diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, Lexer became blind. He slowly regained only limited vision and needs a powerful magnifying glass to see.

"I thought, `What am I going to do?'" Lexer said. "I would just sit in a chair, try to watch TV or take a walk, that's it."

But he found some hope in cooking. Lexer eventually enrolled in a number of cooking classes over the years and learned how to cook.

"The only time I go in the kitchen now is to clean up," said his wife, Marciene. "When he lost his sight, he thought his life was over, but cooking has given him focus."

During his Cooking Without Looking episode, Lexer shared tips with the audience, including how to adjust stove temperature safely and using pre-cut vegetables and meats for recipes. Other guest hosts have showed how they use different container sizes and shapes to identify specific ingredients, such as paprika and basil. Everything starts with having an extremely organized kitchen, some said.

The show's producer Ren'ee Rentmeester, president of the Vision World Foundation, an organization that provides services to the visually impaired, came up with the concept for the program after scouring the Internet and discovering that cooking was a popular topic among the blind. A veteran TV producer, Rentmeester said the show combines two of her interests, TV and helping people.

Cooking Without Looking began airing in February and is taped at WXEL's Boynton Beach studio. The show includes segments that discuss common eye diseases and interviews with health professionals. The show has also explored topics such as AIDS and vision loss and children's blindness.

Another host, Annette Watkins, 46, of Sunrise, who lost her vision to macular degeneration, conducts the interviews.

Earlier this year, Rentmeester found a sponsor, John Palmer, owner of Magnifying America, a store for the visually impaired in Coral Springs. He underwrote the first season of Cooking Without Looking, which consists of 13 episodes. WXEL is offering the show nationally to 350 PBS stations, Rentmeester said.

"The show is a good tool to educate the public (about blind people), what we can do and who we are," said Celia Chacon, 54, of Plantation, a show host who lost her eyesight 13 years ago. A former caterer, Chacon had to teach herself to cook again, relying mostly on her sense of smell and touch. Now she makes a mean cheesecake and apple pie pizza, she said.

Producers said they hope Cooking Without Looking attracts not only people with vision loss, but also their families.

For the show's target audience, the benefits could be more than just a tasty meal.

"The best thing we can do is encourage people who have lost their eyesight to maintain their independence," show host Preston said. "Cooking is one of those things that keeps you independent."

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