Cooking up a career in food

A state program in culinary arts helps blind trainees become licensed vendors in food service


David Himelstein has been going blind since he was 18. Now he's 49 and can see nothing but what he described as a "white cloud." Bright light hurts his eyes, so for the past five years, he said, "I was stuck in a house in a dark room."

Last week, though, he was in a kitchen at Anne Arundel Community College, adding cloves and cinnamon to a marinade for baby back ribs and flank steak.

Himelstein, of Baltimore, was one of five participants in a training program called the Maryland Business Enterprise Program for the Blind, run by the state's Division of Rehabilitation Services.

After they complete the program, which can take up to a year, the trainees can become licensed vendors selling food at a state or federal facility. There are 80 such concessions in Maryland, including the Social Security Computer Center and Fort Meade, said Bart Peeples, director of the program. Some are simple, one-person stands, while others are full-fledged cafeterias employing as many as 20 people.

"This program is giving me the opportunity to basically get back to supporting my family," Himelstein said. "I thought I wasn't going to have anything to do for the rest of my life."

Broad training

The program includes training in business management, merchandising, administration and more, as well as six weeks of culinary training, which takes place at Anne Arundel Community College's Hospitality, Culinary Arts and Tourism Institute.

Students participate Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to about 4 p.m. The program is run through a contract training partnership with the college's Center for Workforce Solutions, said AACC spokeswoman Debbie McDaniel-Shaughney.

Normally, the institute is in Glen Burnie, but for the final week it was moved to the college's Arnold campus because of work being done at the other campus, she said.

Peeples said the program graduates four to five students a year, out of about 15 who are referred through the Division of Rehabilitative Services.

Just knowing how to cook is not enough, he said. "We want them to have interpersonal skills, some business sense and preferably a food service background, but that's not a requirement," he said.

Chef Michael Wagner, an instructional specialist at AACC, has been leading the program for four years. He said there are specific challenges to teaching visually impaired students to cook. "When you tell somebody to grab six red peppers and six green peppers - you take something like that for granted."

Safety is also a concern in a setting that involves plenty of sharp knives and hot surfaces. When he started the program, Wagner put on a blindfold and sliced meat, so he could understand what it was like. "It made me step back and revisit the way I teach the class."

He did note, however, that blind students tend to have terrific senses of taste, smell and touch, which can be huge advantages in the kitchen. Students on Wednesday were working on a buffet to be held Friday for officials involved in the program. They all moved easily around the kitchen without canes or guide dogs, chopping chicken, rinsing out pots and whisking marinades.

Outside the kitchen, some use canes, as well as special software that reads words on a computer screen aloud. Some are completely blind, while others, such as Wilma Smith, 59, of Oxon Hill, can see a little.

Classroom challenge

Smith said she has only peripheral vision. A longtime cook in her home, she feels comfortable in a kitchen, she said. "The challenge for me has been learning how to cook in a classroom environment, somebody else's way."

Another challenge for Smith has been traveling 2 1/2 hours each way, on a combination of trains and buses. But she's finding the program "rewarding" and said when she started, she wanted to run only a snack stand. Now she's thinking she'd like to cook in a more advanced setting.

Being in the kitchen seems natural to Himelstein, too, he said, since his father was in the food business and he grew up around it. Once he figures out the layout of a kitchen, he said, "I pick up very quickly where things are."

The buffet he and the others were preparing called for dishes from Japan, Thailand, Spain, Peru, Italy, France and the United States. Wagner said he can't make things too easy for his students, because they will have to work hard in the real world.

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