When Amar Latif was asked to appear on Celebrity MasterChef in 2019, his answer was simple and to the point: “Look guys, I’m blind and I can’t cook.”
But the following year, when he was asked again, and was told that the BBC wouldn’t take no for an answer (despite Amar informing producers, “I just want to update you: I’m still blind and I still can’t cook”), Amar agreed to take on the challenge of cooking for Gregg Wallace and John Torode.
TV presenter and founder of travel company, TravelEyes, Amar was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was a child and had lost 95% of his sight by the time he was 18. But with the help of a sighted guide, Amar became the first blind contestant to appear on MasterChef and even made it to the semi-finals.
“I realised [during that first meeting with MasterChef producers] that I’d spent my whole life telling people not to have preconceptions about themselves, not to put limitations on themselves, and certainly not to let anyone else put limitations on them. And there I was limiting myself by saying no,” Amar tells Delish.
But it wasn’t just the fact that he was blind that was a concern for Amar…
“When they told me filming started in three weeks, I panicked and threw all my resources at learning to cook. I cooked morning, noon, and night. My personal assistant would cycle to the supermarket and get a ton of food while I researched different ingredients, decided what I was going to cook and how I was going to cook it.
“I became an expert in three weeks. I’m a very competitive person, so once I got down to it, my life totally consisted of it.”
Despite admitting to being a man who “can’t cook”, Amar grew up in a household where food was a central part of his family, and the smell of his mum’s Pakistani cooking would be enough to get him out of bed in the morning.
“My mum was a great cook. I remember waking up and the smell of my mum’s food would make my stomach churn – things like chicken curry, chapatis, spiced cucumber raita, samosas, kebabs, and rice. That would be such a comforting feeling, and those smells would make me so happy. Those smells are memories to me and they’re very special.”
In fact, if you watched his series of Celebrity MasterChef, you’ll know all about Amar’s mum’s legendary green mango chutney.
“Gregg was running around the MasterChef studio shouting, ‘Oh my god – everyone loves Amar’s mum’s chutney!’. And if I’m walking around London, cars screech to a halt and someone will shout, ‘We loved your food! We loved your mum’s chutney.’”
When you’re a blind cook, it’s not enough to have a killer recipe handed down from generation to generation – things have to be done differently to the way a sighted person would use their kitchen. Amar has learned to listen to his food to check if it’s cooked, as well as touching and tasting it regularly.
“I taste my food a lot because I’m not looking at it, and I touch it sometimes. For example, when I’m making a curry, I’ll pick up a piece of chicken because when you squeeze it, if it breaks up easily, you know that it's cooked.”
Amar also has handy gadgets that make his time in the kitchen not only an easier experience but also a safer one.
“I’ve got talking scales, which are cool. And special tactile measuring spoons. I experimented with a talking jug once but it went t*ts up – not sure what went wrong!? Things like that can put you off and make you think you’re a bad chef, and I wasn’t willing to accept that! So, I ditched the jug.
“And I’ve adopted a very efficient way of cooking. When I’m ready to go, I’ll get all my cooking utensils out and place them in a certain way. Along the top of my chopping board are two rows of all my ingredients in the order that I’m going to be using them.
“Even when I start cooking now, I imagine the MasterChef clock going and, although John and Gregg aren’t in my kitchen, I’m imagining them there.”
Instead of using cooking books written in braille (“I don’t really use braille because I didn't lose my sight until I was 18, and it takes years and years to read it at a proficient level”), Amar uses Alexa to find recipes online, which are then read out to him.
Meal kits are a regular in Amar’s kitchen too, as they make creating meals so much easier and more convenient for blind and sighted cooks alike.
“Meal kits like Gousto cater for beginners as they’ve got recipes that you can do in 10 minutes. I don’t think cooking’s that difficult, but if a box comes to your house with all the right ingredients, that’s half of the work done. This means people can have a good start at cooking, so I think these meal kits are absolutely fantastic.”
Amar has his dear mum to help him too – even if she is hundreds of miles away. Amar, who lives in Leeds, and his Glasgow-based mum cook together over video calls, and by the sounds of things, she’s like any other typical mum; constantly worrying her kid isn’t eating enough.
“Before I went on MasterChef and got into cooking when we spoke, she’d always just ask, ‘Have you eaten something, son? Make sure you eat fish.’ You know, the same old mum stuff. But now I have her on Facetime [while I’m cooking], and she’ll look down at my pan and I’ll ask her, ‘How it is? Is it ready yet?’. This has created a special bond between us.
“A few weeks after I did MasterChef, she came to stay with me. I made her a lovely breakfast of spiced scrambled eggs and Indian French toast. She just sat up at the breakfast bar and watched me chopping and cooking – she would never have let me do any of that before, so it was nice to see that her confidence had grown in me.
“My mum never wanted me to go on MasterChef, because she said, ‘Look son – you’re blind. This is dangerous – do not do it!’ So, when I told her I was doing it, she had no choice – she had to help me!”
Luckily, Amar didn’t take any notice of his mum’s concerns and not only went on the BBC cooking show, but got all the way to the semi-finals, which was a life-changing experience for him.
“I had a goal in mind when I was about to go on the show, and that was that I simply didn’t want to be humiliated. So, it’s amazing what I did. That’s why I say to people, if you put your mind to something and focus, you can do it.”
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.