Wong Lin is a tiny young woman with very little cooking experience. But she was enthusiastic and fun as together we made her first Waldorf salad (https://youtu.be/5Y2aaHyKSfc).
She was amazingly confident and relaxed to attempt perhaps her first unfamiliar western dish with the Intercontinental Hotel head chef in one of Chongqing’s most prestigious establishments. I suspect that few sighted people would have risen to the challenge with such aplomb! She struggled at first with one potato peeler but quickly got in to her stride.
I chose this simple dish because it depends on getting the balance of the fresh ingredients right. Together we taste-tested: too sweet or sour? Too salty or bitter? Whatever anyone says about presentation, the latest gastronomic techniques or the exotic sources of ingredients, taste has to be at the heart of all cooking. Often there’s a temptation to throw everything but the kitchen sink at a plate meaning that it only gets muddled in flavour. My hero is Luis in San Francisco who was adamant when training young cooks that they should focus on just a few flavours and really make them sing.
Wong Lin had probably done very little cooking herself so I was keen that this experience was something she could do well and that depended on senses other than sight. Peeling the “whiskers” off celery means that it has a better “mouth-feel”. Cutting the apple and celery to a size that is comparable to the broken walnut pieces means that every mouthful can include some of each and none is too dominant. Being restrained with the mayonnaise keeps all the fresh flavours singing through. Together, we tasted and modified until we were happy.
And, of course, irrepressible Head Chef Jack couldn’t restrain himself from adding his professional touches to the final dish. His care and empathy for this young blind woman was intensely touching. For him, it was equally unusual to have a blind country woman in his kitchen but he made her very welcome.
Wong Lin is trained as a medical masseuse but is so small herself that she can only work on very young children. She lost her sight due to a childhood accident but went on to study at the local school for blind children to qualify in massage techniques. She and her colleagues live at the massage centre, using the patient couches as their own beds at night and have an “auntie” who cooks and assists them. She still has some residual vision so doesn’t use a white cane and is fiercely independent. As she had given up a whole afternoon of her time, I tried to offer her a taxi home as moving around in twilight is difficult with limited vision – but she firmly refused, especially as taxis make her a little car sick. But, with the help of Julia from the local rotary Club translating, we did manage to persuade her to accept some money in recompense for the work time she had lost.
She is the perfect example of a blind person who is determined to make their way in the world: using every opportunity, keen for new experiences and not afraid to take risk. There are so many other blind and disabled people in the world just like her – just give us a chance!