Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Cooking Without Looking Show

More than a year ago, during my many perusals of FB, I came across a page about a cooking show called Cooking Without Looking. Now, I can't pass up any cooking/foodie-related show, so I clicked the link to check it out. What I thought was a simple click has turned into an online friendship with the creator and executive producer, Ren'ee Rentmeester, and a deep, loyal love for her show.

Not too long ago, when I heard that the show's website was going through an overhaul, I reached out to Ren'ee and asked her if I could interview her in celebration of the new site. As a foodie, I felt honored to cross the geographical barriers of our locations, and "sit down" with a woman with a grand vision.

Ren'ee's bio reads like an intriguing journey of an unfolding focus. It begins with the early expression of her love with media and journalism at 17, when she went to work for WLUK-TV in Green Bay, WI. And, with her degree in Journalism (minor in Political Science/International Relations), she began her career in full at an CBS-TV affiliate in Miami in a series of positions that range from Promotion/Ad Copywriter to Press/Community Relations Director/Producer.

A twice Emmy nominee, Ren'ee won an American Heart Association award for a series of PSA on people who experienced a stroke in middle-age. After opening her own Advertistin/Public/Media Relations company in 1996 to growing success, winning an award for volunteering for March of Dimes, and sitting on numerous boards, Ren'ee began researching the area that would lead to her ground-breaking series.

In 2000, the non-profit Vision World Foundation was born, which is the parent company for the show, Cooking Without Looking. The show has rave reviews from people from it's immediate viewing area in South Florida to people who now have access to past show clips and recipes on Youtube, Vimeo and Facebook.

The Cooking Without Looking Group (from left to right) Celia Chacon, Allen Preston, Ren'ee Rentmeester and Annette Watkins
The three hosts and guest chefs all deal with visual impairments of varying degrees. But, the show does more than just give quick tips and recipes for the visually impaired. There is a section where helpful kitchen items are discussed and awareness is given to different eye conditions and disorders. In the discussion, there is not the typical emphasis on "tragedy and inspirational characters," but on people who live real lives, love to cook and eat good food. That approach, I believe, is the reason for it's success. 

Too often, stories, shows and the media make disability awareness and advocacy focus on the heroic character instead of the neighbor next door, who has a great recipe collection. On Cooking Without Looking, the emphasis is on adaptation so we all can enjoy a good meal. We hear about accommodations as the meat sizzles in the background, creating the perfect kitchen ambiance. We watch a tool being used to incorporate ingredients into a sauce as the hosts toss about humorous banter. For me, this show illustrates my approach to advocacy; let's enjoy each other's company and differences: let's focus on life and food! 

Below is the complete interview with Ren'ee Rentmeester, creator of The Cooking Without Looking Show. Don't forget to sign up for the FREE Ebook at the new and improved website, and share the site with others!

F4A: What made you start Cooking Without Looking?
I had served on many boards of non-profits for most of my life because, as a person in the media, you must reach out into the community, and this meant lending my media expertise pro bono to both national and local non-profits.

I wanted to start something where we could help people who, no matter what their race, creed, ethnicity, financial situation, needed help. Blindness worked, so, as I did my research (2001) I found that there were a multitude of blind people on listservs who loved to cook. In fact, those were the most popular listservs. That's how I began my research since I had never met anyone who was blind. I could get an honest assessment since people where just writing about their experiences as people who were blind.

That intrigued me, so I began looking around Miami blind chefs, and I found one. We shot a pilot for PBS, and it got picked up. As it went on, many people wanted  just regular, everyday people who were blind, and that's when I started to speak to groups and there was an amazing number of people without eyesight who told me
they always wanted to be cooking on TV.

F4A: Can you tell me a little bit about each host and what they bring to the show?

Annette Watkins: She has been with us from the very beginning. She does the Food for Thought Segment where we feature what's new in accessibility, doctors, research, etc. She also gives us the 'healthy' recipes for improved eyesight. Annette has Stargaardt's.

Allen Preston: He's also been with us from the beginning. He talks about tips and keeping it clean, and some of the simpler recipes.

Chef Don White: Our classically trained chef, Don gives us food history, tips, and some of the most amazingly delicious recipes that you can cook on a budget.

Sabrina Deaton and Dr. Marc Gannon: present 'Macular Moment' and discuss research for the number one eye disease, Macular Degeneration. Dr. Gannon is director of the Low Vision Institute and has been a long time supporter (right from the beginning) of the Cooking Without Looking TV Show.

F4A: What are the challenges in producing a show like this?

Actually, I had to think about this because we have so much fun, that I  haven't stopped to think about the challenges. Mostly, it's getting advertisers to understand that if you have a show with people who are blind in it, that that means you will have your regular viewers, plus the blind folks. They think that only blind people will watch.

We've found that to be incorrect. In the 11 years we've been producing the show, it's really about 50/50 blind to sighted. The fact of the matter is that anyone who cooks can use all of these tips. It's just that if you're blind or have a visual impairment, they make it easier for you.

Other people who are especially attracted to the show:
- Beginner cooks;
- Bachelors/Bachelorettes;
- College students;
- Newlyweds;
- The self-admitted “cooking impaired”;
- People who like to cook, and would like some new, out-of-the-box tips;
- People who eat…

F4A: Do you have any difficulty getting guests to be on the show?

No, as a matter of fact, they call us and invite themselves, lol!

F4A: Do you have difficulty getting sponsors? What is the response of the corporate/entertainment world?

The response has changed throughout the years. But, it's a constant educational process. We are always fighting off the old stereotypes of what people believe blind people are or what they do.

F4A: Who comes up with the recipes? 

Everyone brings their own recipes. To help them make their choices, I tell them to imagine that they want to impress company which is coming over. What would
they like to make?

F4A: Are there bloopers? What are they like?

Yes, there are bloopers, but not as many as you would think. On some shows, we do outtakes at the end of the show. One of our famous ones was when a blind chef with macular degeneration grabbed for what he thought was a white towel. It was really a bowl of whipped cream.

When I edit, I leave those in because people have told me that when they see someone on TV make a mistake, it empowers them to go back into the kitchen and cook fearlessly.

F4A: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in producing this show?

I've learned not to fear blindness because I've met so many people who have gone blind and just used it as a challenge which they have to overcome.

Also, it's not about the's about the ability we all possess. When I counsel people who call in telling me that they've lost their eyesight, I try to help them understand that there's so much more to them than their eyesight. There's so much more life to be lived beyond what we see.

F4A: Is there anything the community of PwDs can do to support the show?

Glad you asked. We see how excited people get about Christine, the blind chef on the Masters. We are trying to get The Food Network, namely their sister station, The Cooking Channel to understand the necessity for this show. We want them to know with the Baby Boomer population, the blind/visually impaired/low vision community is growing by leaps and bounds. Also, this will add to the number of people watching the network, not limit it to people with limited eyesight.

Here are the contact names and numbers to call in your support:

Food Network General Manager: Bob Tuschman
Vice President of Programming for the Cooking Channel: Jen Quainton (
 Food Network Main Line:  212.398.8836
Just ask for Bob Tuschman or Jen Quainton
Lauren, his assistant:  212.401.5360

F4A: Are there any future plans, additions or changes for the show?

We are shooting on location and out of the studio. We are building a new website. People will be able to become one of our club members for a $27 fee.

Scott Treeman is a pianist who is blind and he scores the original music for our show. Our announcer is a young blind broadcaster by the name of Brian Macko.

F4A: Will there be a cook book/dvd released? I want one!

We have a Cooking Without Looking TV Show Cookbook with recipes from
the first three seasons. It comes with a descriptive CD.

We also have OFFICIAL Cooking Without Looking TV Show Aprons just like the hosts wear.

F4A: Are there plans to close caption the segments? I want to share this with everyone in my network, and I have several friends who will tune in if there is captioning.

All shows are closed captioned.

F4A: What do you want people to remember about you and the show?

I want people to remember that we were the first TV show to illustrate that just because you don't have eye sight doesn't mean that you have to give up on your hopes and dreams for a meaningful life. That, there's a place for you to exhibit your own special skills; and that no matter what life hands us, there's a way around our challenges.

Our show is about inclusion, and not exclusion. There's room for everyone at this party we call, 'life.'

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