The ‘Chopped’ chef from South Texas shows the blind and visually impaired San Antonians how to make tamale


Jesse “Chef Kirk” Kuykendall puckered the chicken and pork on the flat canvas of a corn bowl, the focus of her presentation on the history of tamale-making in San Antonio.

The chef worked in the kitchen of the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and VisionImpaired, a nonprofit that provides rehabilitation services and employment opportunities to locals with impaired or absent vision. About twelve men and women dressed in aprons followed suit.

Jose Lopez, an assistant tech trainer at the lighthouse who wore his waist-length black hair in a ponytail, had gathered about 20 tamales by about 10 a.m. Lopez was born prematurely and suffered retinal damage shortly after birth. After twelve years in office, he cannot see anything in his right eye and carries a white-tipped walking stick by his side, which helps him to find his way around the world. It had been a long time since he last made tamales with his family.

“It brings back some memories,” he said, speaking through a black mask that covered the lower half of his face. “I was a lot younger then than the last time I did it.”

Depending on the severity of their disability, visually impaired people must rely on their senses as well as their eyesight when preparing food, including Lighthouse President and CEO Cindy Watson. She has an inherited eye disease that was diagnosed when she was nine years old.

“While I think seasoned cooks can count on seeing something to see how brown or how crispy it is, I would rely on … precision in timing and temperature to make sure something is baked,” said Watson.

But Watson isn’t exactly a worse cook for that, although she laughingly admitted, “I’m not the cook in my family.” One of your goals as CEO is to enable Lighthouse customers to recognize that their disabilities need not be limited in their options.

“Just watching people like me make a tamale in the kitchen raises awareness of the skills of blind people, which I believe is a key factor in community engagement,” said Watson. “We want people to understand that life doesn’t end with vision loss. You can live a full life with vision loss with the right training and techniques, and that is really the important message we want to convey through opportunities like these. “

Chef Kirk handed out tidbits of culinary wisdom throughout the morning. “Chocolate goes perfectly with any spice,” she once said to a refrain of “Ooohs”. When the aluminum foil pans on the countertop were filled to the brim, she began to pour their contents into a large silver saucepan. When she finished, she put a handful of corn husks and a plastic bag on top of the pot – to “hold in the moisture,” she said, before putting it on the stove and turning on the heat. Then the waiting began. Tamales take between 45 and 55 minutes to cook, Chef Kirk said.

Laredo native alum “Chopped” had never been asked to do a cooking demonstration for a room full of people with disabilities. The prospect made her “very nervous”, but she described it as “very humiliating” overall.

“You begin to understand how the love language of food is ubiquitous (ubiquitous),” she said. “When it comes down to it, you talk to everyone.”

The presentation was the smooth start to what Amy Lane, Director of Public Relations at Lighthouse, hopes for an ongoing partnership between the center and the Tamal Institute of the UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in San Antonio. The institute was founded in 2018.

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