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The joy of cooking … without looking

By Kate Hartsel

RenŽee Rentmeester with show hosts and associate producers
Ren´ee Rentmeester, second from right, on the set of "Cooking Without Looking" with hosts and associate producers Annette Watkins, Allen Preston and Celia Chacon.

When Miami television producer Ren´ee Rentmeester first proposed developing a cooking show on television for people who are blind or visually impaired, the reaction was predictable.

"The first reaction from most people was 'Blind people cook?'" said Rentmeester, a 1982 UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate. "My response was always, 'Yes, because blind people do eat.'"

A year later, "Cooking Without Looking" is thriving as it provides quality cooking tips while helping to tear down stereotypes about people with visual disabilities.

As she developed the program, Rentmeester - who is not blind - signed onto dozens of listservs to learn directly from people who are blind and visually impaired about the challenges they face and how they overcome them.

"What I learned is I don't need to feel sorry for people who are blind or visually impaired," Rentmeester said. "There's so much more to people than their blindness, and there are so many tools and ways to cope."

The more she learned, the more obvious it became that "Cooking Without Looking" could accomplish much more than provide cooking tips.

"There's so much fear about blindness," Rentmeester said. "People fear losing their sight almost as much as they fear dying. The program tries to show that people are people, and blind and visually impaired people shouldn't be excluded from society simply because they've lost a physical ability. It tries to show that they can do many of the same things as sighted people, just in a different way."

The show focuses on the capabilities of people who are blind and visually impaired, Rentmeester said. The program's three hosts - all of whom are blind or visually impaired - moderate the 30-minute show. The guest chefs on the show also are blind or visually impaired, Rentmeester said, noting that the guests have ranged in age from 9 to 83 and worked in a variety of occupations.

"I try to give everyone interested a chance to be on the show," Rentmeester said. "There are no auditions. I shoot the show at a relaxed pace and even leave in some of the mistakes people make. I want people who are blind and visually impaired to know it's OK to have an 'oops' moment and still be able to be successful at cooking. It also adds humor, which we have a lot of in our show."

Rentmeester credits UW-Eau Claire communication and journalism professor emeritus Henry Lippold for helping her learn to view the world in a different way, an ability that has served her well in her long career in television. She remembers Lippold standing on a desk, jumping down and crouching on the floor as he pretended to take photos of a parade during a journalism class.

"He was making a point about telling a story from different angles," Rentmeester said. "It made quite an impression on me."

Rentmeester, who has been in the television profession for nearly 30 years, knew the idea of a television show done from the perspective of blind and visually impaired people was radical, but she was committed to taking a risk.

"Trying to get people to see the value of this program has not been easy for Ren´ee," said Celia Chacon, one of the hosts of "Cooking Without Looking" who is blind. "But I think Ren´ee has created a great tool to teach blind and visually impaired people a necessary life skill and to encourage sighted people to see our side of the world."

A former news and promotion producer from WFOR-TV in Miami and a two-time Emmy award nominee, Rentmeester left the station to start the nonprofit Vision World Foundation.

While developing the foundation she learned about descriptive television - a new technology that provides an alternate audiotape that narrates what is happening visually. It gave her the idea of doing a show in which blind people would use the same technique without the new technology. She chose to do a cooking show because it is such a necessary skill for everyone, sighted or not. That's how "Cooking Without Looking" was born. The show is entering its second season airing on WXEL-TV 42, a PBS affiliate in Palm Beach, Fla.

"Ren´ee is a person with real perception," said Chacon, who has worked on the show since early in its first season. "Ren´ee has a great ability to reach out to others. There's always something going on in her head. She's always finding ways to get people to sit up and listen."

Knocking down stereotypes and educating people about the ways blind and visually impaired people negotiate the world is an important part of the show, Rentmeester said. A segment of the show called "Food for Thought" focuses on the different organizations and issues affecting people who are blind and visually impaired, she said.

"We've covered topics from stem cell research to corneal transplantation," Rentmeester said. "We did one show on how AIDS can cause blindness."

The show told the story of a 34-year-old man who became blind as a result of AIDS, Rentmeester said. The man fought back from the brink of death and went on to write a cookbook with his 90-year-old grandmother.

"I was in the control room while they taped that show, and I started crying when I heard about how much adversity he had gone through," Rentmeester said. "I feel like I'm accomplishing something with 'Cooking Without Looking' that no one else has. There isn't another show like this that is helping educate people, dispelling stereotypes and letting people who just happen to have a disability gain some independence and self-esteem."

Chacon, who also is an associate producer of the show, says the television program has become an important part of her life. Chacon, who lost her vision 14 years ago to diabetic retinopathy, sometimes wonders why her life has taken the turns it has.

"You can't sit in the corner and cry about it," Chacon said. "This show that Ren´ee developed has really been phenomenal. Sometimes I feel maybe this show, what Ren´ee is doing and my part in it, is my mission in life."

Rentmeester has big plans for the future. She hopes to start a network for people with disabilities that would feature programs like "Cooking Without Looking" and "Traveling Without Trouble," a new show that would look at ways to overcome obstacles people with disabilities run into while traveling.

"The network will be a great way of gaining support for people with different abilities in a positive and fun manner like we've accomplished with 'Cooking Without Looking,'" she said.

Rentmeester said she is energized by her work.

"I wake up early and never feel tired," she said. "I'm happy all the time because I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. I could be covering stories of people who climb Mount Everest. Instead I'm doing shows on people who climb mountains daily."

Kate Hartsel is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.


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