by Regina Mitchell
From the Editor: This is taken from the Spring 2023 issue of Future Reflections. This is what Debbie Stein said to introduce the article:
When Regina Mitchell received an NFB National Scholarship in 2017, she planned to become a neurobiologist. Yet, as so often happens, life led her in a very different direction, back to her true passion—cooking. In this article she recounts the long journey of this passion, from its roots in her early childhood to the work she is doing today.
I've loved cooking for almost as long as I can remember. I grew up as a fully sighted child in southern California, the oldest of four. When I was very small, my mother allowed me to assist her in the kitchen when she prepared small dishes such as salads and dressings. Later she taught me to make meals that included more steps, such as tacos, enchiladas, spaghetti, and my childhood favorites: sloppy joes and awesome tuna melt. I grew to appreciate every process of cooking, and I loved creating dishes that my family enjoyed.
Both of my grandmothers lived within a few blocks of one another, and they shared their knowledge and love of cooking with me. My maternal grandmother, born in Arkansas and the mother of thirteen children, taught me the secrets of making southern family-style meals such as casseroles, burritos, fried and smothered chicken, gravy, biscuits, and fruit preserves. My paternal grandmother, born in New Orleans, taught me the secrets of refined French Creole cuisine. She also introduced me to the rustic fare of Cajun cooking with bold flavors of étouffée, all kinds of gumbos, jambalayas, and seafood Creoles. In addition, I learned the magic of cooking vegetables such as squash, green beans, beets, and the mysteries behind great salads.
After I got married, I learned more cooking secrets from my husband's mother, who was born in Texas. She taught me to make a wide variety of dishes such as smoked brisket, grilled salmon, pastas, and pilafs. One dish for which I never got the recipe was her outstanding spaghetti sauce.
After a few years of marriage, my husband and I moved to British Columbia, Canada, and we also lived in Seattle, Washington. The advantage of living between two countries was that I discovered the totally different cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Instead of the Southwestern dishes I was used to, I began to enjoy the abundance and varieties of fresh coastal seafood and the offerings of coffee houses, vineyards, farmers' markets, and herb farms. My curiosity led me on a quest for more knowledge of the fundamentals of food science. I took my passion for cooking to another level; I decided to pursue it professionally. I followed a lead and enrolled at the Seattle Culinary Academy.
In culinary school we were taught fundamental, technical, and safety skills. A huge emphasis was placed on proper knife skills. We moved from basics to advanced lessons in stocks, soups, sauces, international cuisines, culinary trends, and the use of fresh herbs (I even started my own herb garden). I learned to cook for vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians, and I studied organization, discipline, and time management. I learned how to run a kitchen, and I received training in how to manage a restaurant. Although I chose culinary cuisine, courses in the baking school were required. I hadn't had much experience in baking, and I found it a bit challenging, yet it was a powerful tool in my creativity and understanding. During my two years in culinary training, I learned well over 120 lessons, concluding with several externships. All of my training began with basic skills, then layered those skills upon others, just as one builds a dish by layering flavors.
When I completed my schooling in Seattle, I applied for a fellowship to train under master chefs in Great Britain. I lived and worked in Scotland for four months while I trained at the Stakis Hilton Hotel in Edinburgh. From there I went on to train at the Metropole Hotel in London. I studied in Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, and I finished my fellowship at the film festival in Cannes on the French Riviera. Altogether I trained in Europe for eighteen months.
I finally returned to the United States in the late 1990s. In the early 2000s I worked with master chef Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse at NOLA's. At Sur La Table in Seattle, I worked with local and guest celebrity chefs, and I assisted chefs behind the scenes at food shows on Seattle stations. Eventually, I created a wildly successful niche for myself, providing a restaurant-style service in the homes of elite clients and creating corporate executive team building experiences.
One day I got a call from the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. They were building a new boutique hotel in Las Vegas, and they wanted to hire people who were used to dealing with high-end clientele. I had worked with several Fortune 500 executives and many celebrities, and I felt I would be a good fit. I went to Las Vegas for the interview.
The interview was a grueling process that stretched over three days. In the end I was one of fourteen people who were hired. My family packed up and relocated to Las Vegas. I transitioned from being a chef in the culinary profession to being a butler in the hospitality industry that specialized in personalized elite services to global nomads, royalists, celebrities, and gamers. My favorite guests were those who saved for months to enjoy just one night of luxurious pampering.
Then my life underwent a dramatic change. Between 2012 and 2013 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called lupus. Lupus can affect any system in the body. In my case I started to have severe eye pain. In 2014 I was diagnosed with bilateral panuveitis (inflammation of all layers of the uvea, from the front to the back of the eye). To my consternation my doctors suggested that I take a medical retirement. They were convinced that my work in hospitality would be impossible due to my vision loss.
So I left my job. I sat at home week after week, month after month. While sitting there I realized my losses; I had lost my sight, lost my career, and lost the independence of driving, cooking, and navigating my previous world. I was utterly disheartened, discouraged, and disappointed that life had dealt me such a traumatic blow. I was a burden to myself, and I felt I was a burden to my family and friends.
There had to be something I could do to become active again! I made a decision to return to school to finish my bachelor's degree. I enrolled in classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
I had no idea what was ahead of me as a returning blind student. I still had some residual vision, but I soon realized it wouldn't be enough. I sat in class and could barely see my professor's face. I ordered textbooks and could barely see the print on pages. I truly didn't understand the gravity of my circumstances.
One day I met with one of my professors about the problems I was having. He referred me to the Disability Resource Center (DRC) on campus. There I met my advisor, Raquel O'Neill. Raquel was the first blind person I ever knew. Almost overnight my life was transformed. The DRC reformatted my books and showed me how to use a CCTV and the speech output on my smartphone. I learned many other skills that I needed for academic success. Raquel later referred me to BlindConnect, the only blindness training program in Las Vegas, which provides life skills training, employment training, and peer support programs. At BlindConnect I learned the basics of daily living skills and the use of a long white cane. I signed up for paratransit services and gained peer support.
In 2017, nearing my last year at UNLV, I found myself running low on funds. I did a Google search for scholarships for blind students, and I found a scholarship program run by an organization called the National Federation of the Blind. I applied for a national scholarship, and to my joy and amazement, I received a call from Julie Deden in Colorado. She told me I was a finalist, and I would be attending the national convention of the NFB in Orlando, Florida.
In July of 2017, I flew to Orlando and attended my first NFB National Convention. I was the oldest student in my scholarship cohort, but blindness and NFB have no age barriers. At the convention I found a safe place where I truly belonged! The whole experience was inspiring and beautiful! I was honored to receive a STEM scholarship contributed by Oracle.
When I returned home from the convention, I was eager to get involved with the NFB of Nevada Southern Chapter. It wasn't long before I became president of the Southern Las Vegas Chapter.
In 2018 I graduated with honors from UNLV. In addition to the general commencement ceremony, I was asked to present as a guest speaker in the African American Heritage commencement ceremony.
In the summer of 2019 I returned to BlindConnect to attend weekly peer support meetings. Shortly, I shared with Raquel O'Neill my desire to join in partnership with BlindConnect and share my cooking skills and passion with this new community I am embracing. I had exceptional culinary skills, but I needed some techniques specific to blindness, which in time I would learn.
A few months later, however, the COVID-19 pandemic brought face-to-face classes to a halt for several months. The cooking classes later resumed on Zoom, and for eight weeks I taught theory and techniques. People really enjoyed the classes, but I wanted to give more. I decided to demonstrate, describing my cooking process step by step. I tried to describe everything I was doing as I went along. I call it, "Intuitive Cooking." I give an audio description of what an ingredient should feel like and how it should taste and smell. The students were thrilled. Many had never cooked on the stove or in the oven. Now they began recreating the same meals in their own kitchens.
Because I held my classes online, geography was no barrier. My classes opened up to people all over the country. The media was curious: Who is this blind chef who is teaching blind people? The media began to pursue interviews for podcasts. The LA Times ran an article about my work. CNN flew down and observed one of my classes and later featured a small segment on The Human Factor with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and the local paper's Review Journal.
National Federation of the Blind President Mark Riccobono invited me to chair a group for cooking and food enthusiasts. We called it the NFB in the Kitchen Group.
As I reflected on my long history with cooking, I realized that it's very important to give children experience in the kitchen from an early age. The Wisconsin Parents of Blind Children reached out to me to teach a few cooking sessions to their families. We started with monthly sessions during the summer. I've taught them blindness skills and tool use, such as using a pizza cutter and a food processor in place of a knife. Safety always comes first! We've learned how to make lava cake, meatballs, smoothies, quiche, and pumpkin pie. Currently my youngest student is eight years old. These children are fearless, learning independence in their own kitchens and challenging obstacles!
I feel tremendously blessed as I look back over my life! Blindness has brought its challenges, but it has enriched my life as well. I've often said that one of my superpowers is welcoming new experiences, and so it is here! I have met many amazing people, people I never would have known if I hadn't lost my sight. I have learned new skills I never would have mastered as a sighted chef.
I'll do whatever I can to encourage people to get into the kitchen! I tell students to start without heat: making salads, sandwiches, and vinaigrettes. Visit the deli and find out what's available to taste. Discover herbs such as lavender, verbena, basil, and rosemary. Be open to spices such as anise and cardamom, and try leeks, golden beets, wild mushrooms, and other produce. Experiment with making your own spice blend. Don't be intimidated by long-winded recipes. Read them carefully and pare them down to the essentials. Just make something. Enjoy eating what you create.
I learned patience from my mother and grandmothers, and I learned to love what I do. I think my students sense that. They understand that my knowledge is freely given.
Sometimes every day becomes the same as the one before. Sometimes in the midst of it all we lose our joy of eating, let alone cooking. And we are desperate for a little dose of kindness and an open, safe space.
The table is central to our lives. It's safe, open, and inviting. We believe in sharing life through great food at our own table. Over food, stories are told, our days unfold, our family histories are gleaned, and often we sort out our differences. The table is a safe space, the place where we are nourished. As blind people we can take that step into the heart of our homes, make the kitchen our friend. We can make space at the table and fully take part in our nourishing traditions.Editor's Note: You can visit Regina Mitchell at her website, chefregina.com. To get in touch, email her at [email protected].