The overall goal was to assess the students’ mastery of the concepts and to build a library of videos that covered the major cooking techniques and that could be accessed by a person with limited vision.

By Kathryn Coulibaly

Educators are always looking for innovative ways to connect their students to the material they are teaching. As the lead teacher for Family and Consumer Science, Industrial Arts, Business, and Technology at Roxbury High School, Laura Richards knew that the skills she was teaching her students would benefit them in many ways. Her culinary arts classes give students a better understanding of how to prepare food, helping them make better nutritional choices. In addition, culinary arts exposes them to different foods and cultures and helps them understand food costs and how to prepare nourishing but affordable foods.

Richards had been teaching Culinary Arts I for 12 years, but it was her first year teaching Culinary Arts II and she wanted to find a meaningful culminating project for the unit on cooking methods.

“In the past, students were encouraged to make a Tasty Video, which is a short video that shows how to prepare a recipe or a specific culinary technique,” Richards said. “Tasty Videos usually do not have narration although some of the videos have music playing or words that pop up on the screen. A Tasty Video is reliant on a person’s ability to see. I felt strongly that my students could handle a bigger challenge.”

Richards knows something about meeting challenges. Her five-year-old son Nathan has a vision condition called Brown’s syndrome, which limits his field of vision and makes navigating a new environment difficult.

“As I thought of how my son navigates his world, the idea of creating a cooking video for someone who was vision impaired or completely blind came to me,” Richards said. “So I started to do some research, and I learned that Christine Ha, who won MasterChef a few years ago, is legally blind.”

MasterChef is a competition on the Fox television network in which amateur cooks are mentored by professional chefs through a series of culinary challenges to win the title of MasterChef and a $250,000 prize.

“I remember watching a video of her first challenge on the show,” Richards said. “She explained how she uses her other senses to create dishes, and it occurred to me that what separates average chefs from exceptional chefs is their ability to tap into all of their senses. Christine Ha’s disability was also her superpower in the kitchen, and it’s what eventually led her to win the MasterChef competition that season.”

I think that even without the incredible bonus of a trip to South Africa, our students really embraced the spirit of this project and that’s something they will carry with them for life.

Creating accessible cooking demonstrations

Richards and her students began researching and watching videos of how Ha cooked: how she had to learn to hear what boiling water sounded like, what perfectly sweated onions smelled like, and how she could work safely in the kitchen. Ha’s mastery and fluidity in the kitchen mesmerized them and left the students in awe.

As part of their research, Richards came across a television show called “Cooking Without Looking,” a program that makes cooking safe and accessible to people with low vision or who are blind.

“The Cooking Without Looking episodes are an incredible resource for my students,” Richards said. “As my students began their Cooking Without Looking projects, they each chose a cooking technique to demonstrate in their video. The overall goal was to assess the students’ mastery of the concepts and to build a library of videos that covered the major cooking techniques and that could be accessed by a person with limited vision.”

While the students worked on their projects, Richards reached out to the creator and executive producer of  “Cooking Without Looking” Ren’ee Rentmeester, to tell her about the project and to thank her for the inspiring show.

Rentmeester was thrilled to learn of the students’ projects and offered to feature each of them on the next season of the show, its first with FoodyTV.com, which can be viewed on various online video delivery services. The episodes would be filmed in South Africa and would focus on how blind and visually impaired people throughout the world cook.

Rentmeester and Richards agreed to post the students’ videos on the “Cooking Without Looking” Facebook page and invite visitors to vote for the best video. The creators of the video that received the most votes would be invited to travel with the show to South Africa and be part of the filming.

“The students were so excited about the opportunity,” Richards said. “But I think half of them thought I was joking when I told them that the winning group would have an all-expense paid trip to South Africa, courtesy of ‘Cooking Without Looking!’”

Laura Richards, center, with two of her culinary students, Senam Atadja and Julia Fedorko.

A winning team

In June 2018 the winning video was selected: “Macaroni and Cheeseburger,” prepared by Roxbury High School Seniors Donovan Brady, Emma Karnitsky, Rachel Lessig and Charlie Rinaldi.

“The competition was extremely tough,” Rentmeester said. “All of the entries were excellent and captured the spirit of our show, which is to create an understanding of how people who are blind live on an everyday basis.

“We expect to begin filming in Cape Town, South Africa within the next several months,” Rentmeester continued. “In addition to being the creator and executive producer of the show, Rentmeester is also the founder and president of Vision World Foundation, which receives a portion of the show’s advertising revenue to provide free services to people who are blind or visually impaired.

“This was an amazing opportunity for our students, and I’m so thrilled that it all came together like this,” Richards said. “But I think that even without the incredible bonus of a trip to South Africa, our students really embraced the spirit of this project and that’s something they will carry with them for life.”

Richards will be carrying her passion for education to a new position with the Hillsborough School District, where she will be furthering her interest using students’ perceived disabilities as superpowers.

Watch the award-winning cooking video, Macaroni and Cheeseburger.

Visit Cooking Without Looking’s Facebook page.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. 

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