Blind chefs cook up success in Palm Beach Gardens

Posted at 6:00 PM, Dec 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-26 19:12:39-05

A culinary program in Palm Beach Gardens is teaching members how to prepare nutritional meals and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

When participants meet, it is a cacophony of conversation with chopping and culinary chatter.  This mixes with the aromas of ingredients that are all perfectly paired. 

The movements of the chefs, dressed in white with embroidered and starched coats and hats, are practiced and confident.

Meanwhile, the jokes are flying fast and furious between them.

"Normally when we eat, everybody goes quiet," laughed Nicole Ledbetter.

The chefs might not have met if it weren't for two things: a love for cooking, and each of the chefs are blind or visually impaired.  The chefs are all members of Beyond Blind

Dr. Michael Chimes was a chiropractor who always loved to cook.

"It's great to have the synergy of each other. We're in the same boat, so to speak.  We have the same issues to deal with, and we're like a support group for each other.  And that's even the best part of it too," said Chimes.

The process of training to cook without sight can sound intimidating or even dangerous. 

Chimes says  just like typing on a keyboard, he doesn't need sight to confidently work with a sharp knife. All of the chefs in the school have been taught safety techniques, like hand placement.

He says the focus on the other pieces of the experience provides all of the information he needs.

"I think about our touch, our feel, our hearing, our sense of smells," he explained.

On this day, the group was whipping up a gourmet three-course meal with some guidance and training from expert chefs.  Large tables are placed in a U-shape in the noisy room. 

As final touches are put on the dishes, the chefs sit down across from meal guests from a local retirement community and a group of chefs in training from Joshua Place Cafe through The Lord's Place.  

Events through Beyond Blind also include fitness classes, art, golf and an upcoming fashion show.

The gateway to a full, rich, healthy life for people with vision differences is a lifelong passion of Founder Joyce Gugel, who says she herself is legally blind.

"There's never, ever a time when we walk away and go, 'Oh, I don't think we can do that because we are visually impaired or blind.  We just do everything. If it's not cooking, it's golf, it's fitness, it's art," said Gugel.

Nicole Ledbetter is a mother of two and an artist who went blind in 2010 from a brain tumor.  She believes Beyond Blind has given her back a life and made her a better mother.

"My self esteem, just my way of life, is a lot better.  I was a drug user before, which I'm not now, just my whole way of life is different," said Ledbetter.

As an artist, she learned she could continue to create sculpture and painting without sight.  Her ability to create sculpture has never been better, because of the intensity of her focus.

What has Beyond Blind offered to Ledbetter?

"A life. I went blind in the hospital ... I wasn't expecting it at all. It was very scary.  I wanted to make sure I had friends, I had support. Beyond Blind has given me an outlook on life," said Ledbetter.

Gugel says there are about 70,000 people in Palm Beach County alone who are blind or visually impaired.

Ledbetter encourages others with vision issues to learn about the group.

"You don't have to be scared, you can live and have stuff to do cause I know a lot of blind people who are scared and they shut themselves off from the world," said Ledbetter.

Whole Foods Market and Cheney Brothers support Beyond Blind's cooking school as sponsors.