Throughout his adult life, Amar Latif has refused to let his blindness stop him doing any number of terrifying things.
He has skied down black runs in the Alps, single-handedly sailed a yacht across the Ionian Sea and dodged crocodiles, snakes and sharks on a hair-raising journey across Nicaragua.
He’s also set up his own successful international travel company. ‘My motto is basically to say yes to everything,’ he reflects.
That is until producers from the popular BBC show Celebrity MasterChef got in touch two years ago, to ask if the 45-year-old entrepreneur and television presenter would be interested in taking part in a show where razor sharp knives and boiling water are entry level tools, and a flair for visual presentation a decided bonus.
Amar Latif will become the first blind contestant to appear on BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef when he debuts on Wednesday
‘My friend said “that’s one challenge you don’t want to be doing for all kinds of reasons” and, on this occasion, I couldn’t help but agree,’ Amar says, with a smile.
‘So I told them I was blind and couldn’t cook and that seemed to be enough to put them off. Then they came back this year and asked again. I told them I was still blind, and I still couldn’t cook.’
But, in the end, that didn’t stop him: Amar decided to give it a whirl after all, becoming the first blind contestant to take part in the show.
On Wednesday we see him in action for the first time, preparing a portion of turbot served on a broccoli puree with pickled and roasted cauliflower in a high-end London restaurant.
It is the sort of dish that would even challenge a sighted person. And, make no mistake, Amar is given little in the way of leeway: aside from a set of talking scales and a ‘pair of eyes’ on hand to fetch ingredients, he’s up against the same time and performance pressures as all of his fellow competitors, among them TV host Gethin Jones and former footballer John Barnes.
And that is exactly as he wanted it.
‘I didn’t want to do a challenge where the goalposts were different, because what would be the point in that?’ he asks.
‘As a blind person, I find a lot of people constantly tell you that you can’t do things — I hope that this shows that, with a bit of single-mindedness and some creativity, anything is possible.’
Convivial and charming, presenter and entrepreneur Amar has arguably made that his life’s work.
Raised in Glasgow, the middle of five children, he has been completely blind since the age of 18, due to a genetic condition diagnosed aged six.
‘There was a gradual decline,’ he recalls. ‘At school, my desk was moved to the front of class when I was eight. While I carried on riding my bike, when I crashed into a skip at 16, that had to stop. I think as a teenager I was just trying to survive from one day to the next. Then, one day, I woke up and I couldn’t see and it was terrifying.’
It was also a particularly vulnerable age. ‘My friends were getting jobs, going to bars and getting cars and girlfriends. You feel you are being left behind while the world is moving on,’ he recalls.
But, over the subsequent months, he slowly came to terms with his disability. ‘I hit rock bottom, but that’s when I realised I didn’t want to be wrapped up in a protective box for the rest of my life. I realised I had nothing to lose by grasping every opportunity.’
Amar, who was born in Glasgow, serves up food on the show
That meant, in the first instance, taking up an opportunity to pursue part of his degree course in Mathematics, Statistics and Finance at Queen’s University, Ontario — much to the horror of his parents.
‘It’s been hard for them — my mum has spent a lot of time begging me not to do things and then being very proud when I’ve done them,’ he says. ‘It’s understandable.’
Even he was terrified by that first step into the unknown. ‘I remember waiting to board the plane to Canada and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know anyone there and, of course, I was scared. I remember thinking, “how am I going to do it?” But it turned out to be life-changing,’ he says.
On his return, he got a graduate accountancy job in Leeds with BT, despite being told by one employer that his blindness meant he was unlikely to be recruited by any leading firms. He then went on to become head of its finance division within seven years. ‘In charge of a lot of sighted people,’ he says with a wry smile.
Then there’s the globetrotting: to date Amar has visited more than 100 countries and plans to tick off plenty more.
‘What I’ve learned is that I only really need one thing and that’s a travelling companion to describe what is going on around me to bring it alive. Without their description, the places I visit don’t really have any shape or colour.’
It’s a formula that has proved so successful for Amar that he has made a business of it, setting up a company called Traveleyes which pairs vision-impaired travellers with sighted companions who guide them on tours anywhere from Cuba to China.
Of course, life has not always been easy. ‘I’ve always been determined to show that my blindness would never stop me,’ he says.
Amar pictured in an episode of his 2020 BBC 2 travel programme Pilgrimage: The Road to Istanbul
‘But when I’m in a new apartment and I crash into a door and blood is running down my face then, of course, I think being blind is rubbish. But I also know that if I don’t keep moving, I’m going to end up back down in that dark place and I don’t want to go there. I’d rather try things and get hurt than not try things at all.’
Which is exactly the kind of attitude needed for Celebrity MasterChef, preparing for which meant acquiring no small number of finger cuts.
‘I worked day and night in the run-up — I just kept going,’ he says. ‘You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I practised things — I didn’t have the luxury of being able to see where it goes wrong.’
Even chopping an onion was a big leap for a man whose recipe collection previously extended to wrapping salmon or chicken in foil and bunging it in the oven. ‘It was taking me ten to 15 minutes to peel and chop an onion but, after a lot of practice, and a few nicks along the way, now I’ve got it down to one minute,’ he says.
As for presentation, his friends gave him a crash course by meticulously describing their meals during lunches and dinners out.
‘I remember being served duck in a restaurant on holiday. My friend told me I had small tangerine pieces going from three to six o’clock on the circumference of the plate, the duck was cut into slices and leaning on a bed of sweet mashed potato, and between six and 12 o’clock there was a beautiful orange sauce. I can picture that.’
Then there’s the way he’s learned to listen to his food. ‘What I realised is that, when you’re cooking, you have lots of non-visual signals,’ he says.
When I was practising I started to hear the food talking to me — the noise starts to get louder and it’s almost like it’s communicating to me, saying, “you can’t see it’s going brown but I am shouting out to let you know”. So, fish will make a spitting sound and onions will go from sizzling to making a crackling sound which lets you know you need to move them.’
There’s also the small matter of his ‘asbestos fingers’, developed through years of plunging his fingertips into water to see if it’s boiling.
At this stage, Amar cannot give away how far he gets in the competition, although it’s clear he relished every minute.
His fellow contestants, meanwhile, were all welcoming, if initially a tad anxious. ‘I could sense a bit of apprehension, but that is the kind of thing you regularly face when you’re blind,’ he says. ‘People worry on your behalf.’
It is not giving too much away to say their worries prove baseless: viewers will soon learn that he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Several months after filming has concluded, meanwhile, he would go as far as to describe himself as a ‘good cook’, happy to invite friends round to serve his now signature chicken curry. ‘I make beautiful food now because I have the confidence to do it, which is wonderful,’ he says.
Lockdown only gave him more opportunity to perfect his skills, once he got his online deliveries sorted that is. ‘There were a few dark days when I couldn’t get online deliveries as I wasn’t on the vulnerable list but, once I got access, the world was my oyster and I’ve been experimenting like mad,’ he says.
‘I surprised myself this time,’ he says. ‘A little fire has been lit.’ It’s a fire he hopes he can, in turn, light in others. ‘I hope people watching might be inspired to try something new,’ he says.
Celebrity MasterChef continues on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC1, or catch up on BBC iPlayer.