When it takes you quarter of an hour to take the skin off an onion, a ready meal probably makes more sense than bidding to become Celebrity MasterChef.
But travel presenter Amar Latif, the first blind contestant to compete on the BBC’s all-star cookery series, believes his heightened sense of taste, touch, sound and smell gives him an advantage over his rivals.
Since losing his sight at the age of 18, he confesses he has barely cooked a meal. ‘I kept asking myself what I had signed up for,’ he says of his decision to compete in the series. ‘I hadn’t cooked much and the show execs wouldn’t even let me have any extra time, which I thought was a bit harsh,’ he joked.
It was the second time the BBC had approached Amar, 45, to take part in the competition – last year friends convinced him to reject an approach because they feared the challenge would be too great.
Travel presenter Amar Latif (pictured), the first blind contestant to compete on the BBC’s all-star cookery series, believes his heightened sense of taste, touch, sound and smell gives him an advantage over his rivals.
‘They came back this year and there was a bit of persistence on their part and they asked how they could support me, they asked me what I needed,’ he says.
‘They said I could have adapted equipment but no more time. Now I have realised that us blind chefs can be better than sighted ones. I can’t wing it so I have to have everything ready and organised. I have got it timed and planned down to a T.’
Viewers will next week see Amar, a Scottish entrepreneur who has explored the world despite losing his sight to the genetic eye condition retinitis pigmentosa, cook for paying customers at the London restaurant Mortimer House.
His culinary skills are assisted by a few adapted accessories, including talking scales and special measuring spoons. But Amar swiftly discovered that the biggest advantage he held over his sighted rivals, including former footballer John Barnes and TV presenter Gethin Jones, were his four other senses.
‘What I realised is that, when you’re cooking, you have lots of non-visual signals,’ he says.
‘You’ve got the smell and the sound, for example. If my fish is not happy and needs attention, it will make a spitting sound.
‘And the onions, if they are well past brown they too will start making a noise, saying, “Come over here and help me.” It starts with a sizzling sound when they are happy but when they start crackling loudly, you know you need to start moving them around.
‘And when you’re cooking a lamb chop, it’s about the feel. I will touch the food and feel the texture. When you’re making a chicken curry and the chicken is ready, you’ll pick up a piece in your hand, it kind of crumbles, it breaks apart easily and that’s how you know it’s OK.
‘You have to keep tasting stuff, I totally rely on that. I know if it is missing salt, pepper or butter. I wouldn’t say my other senses are stronger but I use them a lot. I realise that sighted people don’t use their other four so much.’
Amar pictured in an episode of his 2020 BBC 2 travel programme Pilgrimage: The Road to Istanbul
Amar had just two weeks to properly prepare for MasterChef. But before that, he visited restaurants and asked friends to describe how plates of food looked so he could visualise them.
He went to celebrity haunt The Ivy in London’s West End and The Foundry in Leeds, while staff at a hotel in Gran Canaria took him through their à la carte menus.
Despite his preparation, he admits to begging MasterChef hosts Gregg Wallace and John Torode to be kind about his presentation. ‘I said to them, “I want you to taste it before you take too much notice of what it looks like, so if you need to close your eyes, then please do,” ’ he says.
Amar feels his blindness can also be an advantage when he dines with friends. ‘We blind people can go into a restaurant and taste the food for what it is,’ he says.
‘I think you guys get a bit ripped off, for you it’s all about how the food looks. I think that sighted people pay too much attention to that detail, so they don’t taste things properly.’
Amar, who was hospitalised in April with coronavirus after filming the show, has praised MasterChef for enabling him to develop the skills that helped him survive the health crisis.
‘Thanks to the show, I have become self-sufficient during the lockdown,’ he says.
‘It has enabled me to be so independent. And people needn’t worry about me cutting onions. I’ve got my time down to one minute.’
Celebrity MasterChef continues on BBC1 on Wednesday and is available on BBC iPlayer.