What’s on the menu? Not just antipasto

Moadon Marshal teams up with Ha’Studio L’Bishul to offer the blind and sight-impaired an opportunity to do the cooking.

Making a memorable meal at Ha’Studio L’Bishul, with chef Shlomi Falah (photo credit: MOADON MARSHAL)
Making a memorable meal at Ha’Studio L’Bishul, with chef Shlomi Falah
(photo credit: MOADON MARSHAL)
On the day after Hanukka, 24 women associated with Moadon Marshal for the Blind and Sight-Impaired in Ramat Gan entered the spacious learning kitchens of Ha’Studio L’Bishul in Tel Aviv for a morning of culinary instruction.
The distinguishing factor of the group was that onethird of the participants were totally blind, while onethird had limited vision. The rest were family members and Marshal staff. Family members were invited as part of Moadon Marshal’s holistic approach to treating the blind and their relatives, who are the primary source of support for the blind.
The morning’s goal was to spend time cooking, baking and just being together. It was also, in the words of Yaeli Rokach, director of Moadon Marshal, an outing to empower the participants. No prior experience was necessary, just the willingness to try.
Ha’Studio L’Bishul offers the public cooking classes and workshops, all kosher, given by professional chefs and bakers. They offer a wide range of options, ranging from the basics of baking to French pastry, healthy cooking, meat and wine workshops, and cuisines from various far-flung countries.
Liat Hershenson and Yifat Chen, the Moadon Marshal social workers who organized the getaway day, decided with Rokach that Italian food would be not only fun to make but also very appetizing to eat afterward.
As a cautionary measure, they agreed to have a medic from a private company present at Ha’Studio L’Bishul to provide aid if needed.
Chef Shlomi Falah, who headed up the class at Ha’Studio L’Bishul, admitted to having had apprehensions at first. “This would be my first experience with a group of blind people. I knew that we would create the same Italian menu I developed and always use: antipasto, fresh pasta such as ravioli, risotto, focaccia and a heavenly tiramisu. Each requires different cooking and cutting techniques.”
He remembered saying at the beginning of the class in a joking manner, “Do not leave any fingers in the food,” with more than a little fear in his heart. “But as we warmed up and began cooking, I saw how adept they were once they set up their work stations. Moreover, I saw how pleasant, friendly, funny and even jocular they were to me and to each other.
“It was most gratifying watching the pairs of women who were seated around the large working table,” Falah recalled. “Some were mothers and daughters; one pair was an Israeli mother and her daughter who was visiting from Brooklyn, who came to share the experience.”
“Standing near me,” he continued, “was a pair, one partially sighted woman and the other completely blind, both of whom had such a pleasant and funny sense of humor. It was really great to be part of the joyful experience of these women and share their work. Their jokes made everyone happy, and their new friendship inspired cooperation among others.
“I think this was one of the best classes I ever did.”
The delicious smells of freshly baked focaccia greeted participants at the door, an appetizer made by Ha’Studio L’Bishul for them to sample with a hot or cold drink before getting down to business.
The first item on their cooking and baking list was mixing and kneading their own dough. They worked quickly and efficiently, and the result was noted in Falah’s praise of one participant’s work: “This is a buba [doll] of a batzek [dough].”
Next on the agenda was cutting the vegetables for the antipasto, made from beets, potatoes, fennel, onions, garlic, mushrooms and zucchini, and combining them with olive oil and seasonings. The chef’s baking tip was to put all the vegetables, both hard and soft, into the oven at once so they would cook and soften together.
He requested that the vegetable slices be 2 centimeters in width, and to his amazement, that is exactly what the finished product was.
How did they do it? “We feel the size with our hands,” explained Ela Vaya, who is married and has a teenage son. She lost her sight gradually, due to a debilitating eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa.
When Vaya first came to Moadon Marshal she could still see, but the prognosis was that her eyesight would diminish and then disappear. It was a very difficult time for her, and she credited the programs at Moadon Marshal for providing instruction on how to get from place to place (she now uses a white folding cane) while walking or using public transportation; how to organize closets, kitchen and workplace; and how to function in the home and workplace.
In addition, she pointed out that the counseling she received via Marshal’s social workers helped bring her to a point of acceptance.
“However, acceptance does not mean complacency,” she added with a grin.
Although Vaya maintained she is not jealous of sighted people, she is constantly on alert for programs designed to increase her independence and expand her potential.
“I feel that the morning of cooking at Ha’Studio L’Bishul with other women who are blind gave me the strength and confidence to try more in the kitchen,” she enthused. “While cooking, I worry that I have not put in enough salt or sugar, or am nervous around the gas. Even though I have a wonderful husband who is a whiz in the kitchen, I am not.
“After the morning at Ha’Studio L’Bishul, I now have the confidence that I can do more. The fact that Moadon Marshal staff were present gave all of us a tremendous sense of support.”
Vaya volunteers once a week for Kehilla N’gisha, a lobby for the benefit of people with disabilities in Ramat Gan, and has a job as an assistant to social workers at the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. In years past, she took a course at the Ono Academic College for handicapped parents, wanting to take on an active role in childcare. “The course gave me the tools to be more assertive and conscientious in sharing the privilege of raising my son.”
She is grateful to Moadon Marshal and the Social Services of Ramat Gan organization for providing her with the opportunity to learn acting and participate in theater productions at Beit Zvi in Ramat Gan. She has taken on leading roles in the production of Hanoch Levin’s play A Winter Funeral and in Gan Riki by David Grossman, along with five other blind people and eight students studying with the permanent Beit Zvi troupe. The plays were very successful and were presented to more than 1,000 people.
Recently, Vaya delivered a presentation to the women of Beit Issie Shapiro during their fund-raiser to build a home for the disabled in Dimona. “I tried to insert humor in my presentation,” she revealed.
It was her first experience at stand-up while speaking about a serious endeavor, but the results were positive.
“Each time I am able to succeed in a new effort, it gives me strength to view myself as a woman with capacities – not just a blind person.”
AFTER THE antipasto was put in the oven, the next item on the agenda was flattening the fresh dough for ravioli and noodles. Using the gleaming red and blue professional pasta machines that stood ready at each place was the next challenge.
Falah issued the instructions, telling participants into which opening to put the dough for the desired end product and how to operate the machine. He recounted that the attention level of the women was so high that he did not have to explain the process more than once.
The women explored the machines with their hands, and within minutes the ribbons of dough lay on the table for further cutting – either in circles for the ravioli or, when put in the alternative slot, emerging as long noodles for the fettuccine.
Using the pasta machine was one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences for Tzlil Schwartz, Vaya’s partner for the morning.
“We found that with my partial eyesight and Ela’s sensitive hands and artistry, we could complement one another, and the results were fantastic,” Schwartz detailed.
Schwartz is 28, married and the mother of a one-and- a-half-year-old. During the week, she is a nursery- school teacher for children aged three months to a year. Her bright smile and burnished auburn hair stand out against the whiteness of her complexion.
“My eyesight may be weak due to the albino condition with which I was born. However, my senses of feeling and hearing are heightened,” she noted.
“Look around you,” she suggested. “The group of women that you see do not feel as you may think. They have reached a point of acceptance that this is the way it is, and they get on with life.”
The women cut out the ravioli with a glass, measuring the circles of dough with their fingers. They were then able to place the filling exactly in the center and close the dough with just enough water to moisten the edges.
The next step was risotto rice in a cream sauce – and this was Schwartz’s personal cooking challenge. The process of adding liquid slowly to the rice mixture and transforming it into new dishes with different sauces was innovative to her, and something she wanted to try at home. “I believe,” she said, “that you have to give yourself the chance, and you will be successful.”
The dessert tiramisu involved concocting a cream – comprised of a whipped mixture of eggs, sugar and mascarpone cheese flavored with cocoa – and pouring it over ladyfinger biscuits dipped in coffee.
How does a blind person check if there is blood in the egg or that the egg whites are stiff? Falah tactfully mentioned that this is a step with which a sighted person can help.
The mascarpone was flavored with a thick vanilla essence that Falah passed around for all to smell. Extending the spoon to Vaya, he urged her to take a taste of the whipped mixture. When she did not respond – “I had forgotten that she and a good number of the women present do not see,” he recalled – he gently laid the handle of the spoon in her palm.
“This morning was a real learning experience,” Falah concluded. “It has been an opportunity to expand my awareness and appreciation of the talents of individuals who are blind or have limited vision.”
It seems all would agree. Despite initial butterflies and first experiences on both sides, when Moadon Marshal participants and Ha’Studio L’Bishul staff were asked, “Would you like to do this again?” the answer on both sides was a resounding affirmative.