The Sharp Knives And Keen Senses Of A Legally Blind Sushi Chef

Mar 18, 2016

The way food looks is almost as important as the way it tastes. Any trained chef will tell you, “We eat with our eyes.”

We cook with them, too, of course.

But as WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in today’s Quick Bite, there’s a chef in Cleveland who can make food look good without getting a good look at it.

 

It’s lunchtime in downtown Cleveland, and just inside the 5th Street Arcade, we’re walking into Sushi 86. The sushi chef’s knives are good and sharp and he’s aiming to please.

“I’m going to do a little dish that I’ve been working on, Hamachi nigiri.” 

Chef Hsu makes Hamachi nigiri, a style of sushi in which the fish is laid on top of the rice.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Working quickly, without a wasted motion, he deftly shapes the Hamachi, or  yellow tail, around the rice. Then he flavors it with a drizzle of lemon oil, cypress spice salt and scallions. 

Benjamin Hsu has been in the food industry for 15 years. "I love every minute of  it,” he says.

Not what he wants to be known for
You’d never guess watching him work that the chef is blind.

“I try not to stand out. I try not to let my vision be what stands out about me.” 

He was born with ocular albinism. His skin and hair color is normal, but “essentially I have albino eyes. The near-sightedness that it causes, it doesn’t allow me to drive. I’m legally blind. And another symptom of the condition doesn’t allow my vision to be corrected.” 

His impairment is not apparent
Tim McCoy is the education director at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute in Chesterland. When Ben Hsu first walked into his kitchen classroom McCoy thought he was just another student. He’s taught hundreds.

Ben Hsu and Tim McCoy, his former instructor at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute in Chesterland, have become good friends.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

“It came as kind of a surprise because he copes with his impairment so well that some of us weren’t really even aware of it at the start.”  

With awareness came concern.

“I was concerned that he would not be able to keep up on the reading, text books, and course materials, recipes and such. But quite frankly I was most concerned about him using a knife.” 

Skilled with the knife
But he uses it well despite his extreme near-sightedness -- and without giving himself much credit.

“Really when it comes to using a knife, any good cook or chef should be able to do it with their eyes closed.”

Tim McCoy says Hsu makes the most of his acute spatial awareness. That became clear when he saw him work in close proximity with other students.

“Ben actually had already developed some accommodations on his own that made him efficient. Even when he was working in an environment where we were simulating restaurant work on a hot cooking line, he never really experienced any difficulties at all.”  

Growing up rolling sushi
Shu had been making accommodations long before culinary school.  His talents were needed in the family business.

“When our parents opened this restaurant, I was 15 years old. They chained me to a cutting board and told me that if I wanted to live under their roof I was going to roll some sushi.  I said, ‘OK, I’ll roll some sushi.’ " 

It didn’t take long before he got really good at it.

“Thumbs behind, fingers on top. First turn is always the most important. Dampen the knife a little bit. One stroke, one cut.”  

His passion is evident but his impairment is not when Ben Hsu assembles crab and avocado for a California roll.

Chef Ben Hsu loves his work. He's been making sushi since his teen years and decided while at the Ohio School for the Blind that it would be his career.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Heeding his other senses
His quick fingers tell him much of what he needs to know.

“If I were to just lay a, sock a loin of salmon on the cutting board, I’d be feeling for little pricks of bones, smoothness of oil content, firmness and things like that.”  

His sense of touch is keen, but so is his taste perception. His mentor, Tim McCoy, wonders if Hsu’s visual impairment helped refine it.

“Sometimes we’ll do exercises and we’ll ask students to close their eyes and taste things so that they don’t have those visual cues to rely upon and they will eventually build those other senses. Maybe Ben started a little ahead and had an easier time because of it than other students.” 

Ben Hsu sees that a little differently.

“With people that lose their sight it’s not really a matter of amplifying the other senses. It’s more a matter of you're paying more attention to them."

California rolls with artificial crab, wasabi, and avocado are one of the specialties at Sushi 86.
Credit VIVIAN GOODMAN / WKSU

Holding it close
Hsu uses no special tools to cope with extreme near-sightedness. “I use a technique. It’s called holding things very close to my face.” 

Sometimes, customers react.

“Typically they notice something isn’t quite right when I’m, my face staring right into what I’m doing. You get used to stuff like this where it’s sort of, ‘Hey, where’s your glasses?’” 

He doesn’t let it bother him.

Not much bothers him.  “My vision, it just makes things a little bit harder, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t let it matter.”   

Correction: Benjamin Hsu's name was misspelled in the original version of this story.