After A Chef Goes Blind, A Kitchen Adapts

Contributor
When Chef Mike Potvin went blind, the kitchen at Black Tomato became blind-friendly
After A Chef Goes Blind, A Kitchen Adapts
Mike Potvin

Mike, left, with friends at the Black Tomato.

Someone should probably tell Mike Potvin that he’s gone almost completely blind. The Ottawa-based chef seems to have ignored the fact that losing your sight can hinder activities like… cooking.

At 24, as Mike was finishing his studies and working at Ottawa’s much-loved Black Tomato (pictured), he started to notice a few small blind spots in one eye that would cover the words he was reading. While his eye doctors were trying to figure out where the blind spots came from, they grew ever larger and more disruptive.

While the doctors ran more tests, blind spots began to show up in his other eye, growing quickly. Not until November was a doctor able to diagnose Mike’s condition. He was told he had a rare optic disorder called Lebers. In mere months, Mike went from seeing to being blind.

As the blind spots became more aggressive, Mike called his boss at the Black Tomato to tell him the unfortunate news that he’d have to stop working in the kitchen. Not so fast. Instead of letting Mike leave, they decided to make the kitchen (and its staff) more blind-friendly.

Mike stopped working the grill or any of the hot stations in favor of working with cold foods, using his memory to assemble dishes. Rather than learning to read braille, Mike relies on timing and his own instincts when cooking in Black Tomato’s kitchen just as in his own. “It’s not about getting frustrated, I sometimes have to take a deep breath when I, you know, knock over a glass or something.”

Black Tomato’s small kitchen gives a whole new meaning to the adage “everything in its right place.” Mike depends on his colleagues to put various knives, tools, and accoutrements in the same places every time so that he can create the comforting and mouth-watering dishes that Black Tomato is known for night after night. (Photo: burger with pancetta and truffle butter)

What Mike appreciates most about the atmosphere in the kitchen, though, is how often his coworkers make fun of him about it. “This is not a woe is me situation,” Mike says. “It didn’t change the vibe in the kitchen at all, which made me feel way more comfortable with it.”

Cooking now at the Black Tomato only on a part-time basis, Mike works for the Canadian Council of the Blind, a not-for-profit. He and his wife placed stickers with raised bumps around their kitchen so that he can still cook for them at home — the stickers help him know what knob he’s turning, but beyond that he depends on memory and instinct. And debunking the romantic myth that so often is associated with going blind, Mike says “it doesn’t heighten your senses or anything like that.”

I asked him what some of his favorite local haunts were and he recommends Murray Street Bistro and Tennessy Willems in Ottawa, and La Salle À Manger in Montreal.

(All photos courtesy of Mike Potvin)