Inside a Mexican Cooking Workshop for the Blind

Inside a Mexican Cooking Workshop for the Blind

Destellos de Sabor (Sparks of Flavor) is a free cooking workshop that offers culinary training and new opportunities for people with disabilities.
July 8, 2016, 8:00pm

Destellos de Sabor (Sparks of Flavor) is a free cooking workshop for the blind that's offered by Gabriel Garza Alanís in San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico. It can be seen in two different ways: as an inclusive social project, or as a high-risk experiment.

Gabriel Garza at the Destellos de Luz Foundation. Photo by Luis Martinez . Gabriela Rubio Gaytán, one of the students, and Gabriel Garza Alanís at the foundation. Photo by Luis Martinez.

Gabriel is a 37-year-old marketing director. With no training, he started to teach cooking classes for the blind seven years ago at Destellos de Luz (Sparks of Light), a foundation that has offered medical care to low-income blind people since 1997.

In 2009, Gabriel owned a catering business called El Mantel. He came up with the idea for the workshop after visiting the foundation and immediately felt that he wanted to contribute to the work that they were doing in some way. "It started as a very intimate class. We didn't have any stoves and worked in a multifunctional space with some tables. We just had the will to give back to the community." These days, the class is attended by 40 people and it takes place the last Wednesday of every month. None of the instructors charges anything, and all the materials are donated by either the teachers or the foundation.

Each workshop has a theme; they've even organized contests like their own version of Top Chef. Gabriel's main goals are to enact some degree of social change, to end inequality, and to end the indifference society displays toward people with visual disabilities.

The results have been good so far. Many of his students have found a way to make a living through cooking.

Gabriela Rubio Gaytan is 39 years old and has been visually impaired since birth. She has tunnel vision and no reflexes. With time, her condition has gotten worse: Today, she only sees 10 percent with her left eye and nothing with her right one. She's been taking cooking lessons at Destellos de Sabor for a year and a half, and she's now not only able to cook for herself and friends at home, but also to become a culinary entrepreneur. She sells jams, empanadas, and fritters that she prepares at home. Gabriela tells me: "I've gotten so much better. I've lost the fear that I used to have of many things. Once you get over your fear of the stove and the fire, you are not afraid of anything any more."

Paco Dávila, a student at the foundation and cook at El Muelle de al Lado. Photo by Salomón García. Paco Dávila at his job in El Muelle de al Lado. Photo of Solomon Garcia.

Francisco Alejandro Dávila Diaz is 44 years old and one of the most dedicated students. Paco, as he's known, is always on time to work at El Muelle de al Lado, a restaurant located in Plaza 401—one of the most exclusive areas of San Pedro Garza Garcia. He doesn't need any help; he walks around by himself with his white cane, his cellphone hanging from his neck, and a vest that identifies him as a visually impaired person.

This month, Paco will have completed three years of working as a cooking assistant at the restaurant of Antonio Márquez, who's also the owner of LMA Food Concepts and a teacher at Destellos de Sabor. "One day after class, he approached me and asked me, 'Chef, why don't you give me a job?'" Marquez tells me. "It got really complicated; I told him that working in a restaurant is hard, but he convinced me when he said that he wanted to pay for his son's education."

Blindness struck Paco 16 years ago while he was working as a mechanic. Doctors told him that his condition, called retinitis pigmentosa, is hereditary and irreversible. In addition to his vision problems, he also has a mild speech and hearing impairment. But even with the odds were against him, he hasn't gave up. With a serious but relaxed demeanor, he assists in the kitchen Monday through Wednesday from 8 AM to noon, prepping the mise en place. He cuts onions, cilantro, and spinach, squeezes lemons, peels shrimp, scales fish, and grates cheese. "You have to be nice to disabled people," he says. "Some people just turn around and make it as if you are not there; but we're humans just like everybody else."

Mise en place by Paco Dávila. Photo of Solomon Garcia. Gabriel Garza in the foundation's kitchen pantry. Photo by Luis Martinez .

While on the job, Gabriel created new techniques to help his students get familiar with cooking tools, especially dangerous ones such as knives, pots, and open flames. "We came up with the clock technique: {eople imagine that 12 o'clock is up, three is right, six is down, and nine is left. That's what we tell them: 'There's a knife at three o'clock and an onion at nine.'"

Gabriel assures me that working with blind people is, in a way, simpler than it seems because "the rest of the senses are more developed than in a person with normal sight. They tell us things like: 'This has seeds,' or 'I can hear that the oil is ready to cook the meat,' and with their senses of smell and touch they identify every single ingredient. They can tell the difference between a red and a green pepper. It's really impressive."

Gabriel has been nominated to win the world's first social gastronomy award: the Basque Culinary World Prize, created by the Basque Culinary Center in collaboration with the Basque government. It honors the work of chefs, restaurateurs, and food industry professionals who have developed outstanding social initiatives. Destellos de Sabor is one of two Mexican projects that are still in the running to win the 100,000-euro prize.

Paco Dávila at his job in Muelle de al Lado's kitchen. Photo by Solomon Garcia. Gabriel Garza in one of the cooking workshops. Photo courtesy of chef Antonio Márquez.

"The nomination surprised me and moved me. I told my wife: 'It feels as if you are watching a soccer match and the stars are playing and all of the sudden they tell you: 'Get in the field and play with us,'" Gabriel tells me. "It's a dream to be there with these people, I feel like a winner just to be nominated. If we win, it'd be amazing, but if we don't, I still want people to get the message and start seeing the inequality."

"It's like the Nobel Prize of gastronomy," says Guillermo González Beristáin, the chef/owner of Grupo Pangea. "It's a great step forward that they are starting to recognize these projects. It's nothing new. There are many chefs and companies that have been doing many things for the community all these years, but now they're starting to get recognition for it."

While he waits for the winner's announcement on July 11, Gabriel is working on three projects to expand the impact of Destellos de Sabor: a franchise that comes with a procedural manual that will allow anyone to reproduce the workshop anywhere in the world; a restaurant where 50 percent of the staff will be blind people; and a cooking school for the blind where they can also take business classes to build their own employment opportunities.

Regardless of whether he wins the award, Gabriel and Destellos de Luz have already created new opportunities for people with disabilities. It may have begun as a high-risk experiment but ended up as a socially responsible and inclusive enterprise—the perfect example of social gastronomy that the worlds needs. As Joan Roca said: "Humanist gastronomy is the future of gastronomy."