Logo: AFB 100. Inclusion Knows No Limits.
Text on screen:
Dinner and Music for a Historic Celebration. Introduction.
Russell Shaffer, Senior Director of Global Culture, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Walmart Inc.
Russell Shaffer: Hello, and welcome to an evening with the American Foundation for the Blind celebrating AFB's centennial anniversary. My name is Russell Shaffer. I'm a longtime supporter and past Board Chair of AFB, and I'm truly honored to be a part of the festivities celebrating AFB's rich 100-year history.
Now to set the stage for you all, I'm coming to you today from my kitchen at home, I am a Caucasian man who keeps my hair closely trimmed, and I'm wearing a red sweater. As we look around the world in which we're in today, it's safe to say that from a global pandemic to racial injustice, to civil unrest, we all could benefit from a little nourishment for the soul and some togetherness. In my experience, one of the best things for bringing people together is when you can rally around some food, some wine and some music.
Russell shares a four-way split screen with:
- Marcus Roberts, Jazz Pianist and Composer
- Doctor Hoby Wedler, Entrepreneur and Wine Expert
- (and) Christine Ha, MasterChef and Restaurateur
Russell Shaffer: We've got with us today, renowned chef Christine Ha, acclaimed wine expert, Dr. Hoby Wedler and world-known musician, Marcus Roberts. Christine, Hoby, Marcus, welcome and thank you so much for joining us today to celebrate AFB's centennial anniversary.
Christine Ha: Yeah, thanks for having...
Marcus Roberts: Appreciate it.
Russell Shaffer: Yeah. Really looking forward to the conversation today. As we dive in, we're going to talk a little bit about inspiration, challenges, the current state of affairs, the next 100 years for AFB, and we've got a surprise of a meal, wine list, and playlist specifically curated by Christine, Hoby, and Marcus. So getting into our program today, I've always found it's so much more rich to get to know people from their stories in their own words, rather than reading somebody's bio.
So we'll get things kicked off with Christine. Christine, if you could start us off today, maybe sharing a little bit about your personal story and journey, what led you to where you are today as an accomplished chef and how vision loss intersects and is a part of your personal journey and story.
Christine Ha: Sure. My name is Christine Ha. For context, I am Vietnamese-American. I have short dark brown hair and I'm wearing a cream short-sleeve sweater.
So as a Vietnamese-American, I grew up eating a lot of Vietnamese food. My parents were refugees that came from Vietnam in 1975, and I was born in Southern California. And so growing up, I ate a lot of things that were then considered strange or smelly or whatever. But once I got to college, I had lost my mother when I was younger, and so she never taught me how to cook her recipes. And I missed the home cooking that I'd eaten growing up in her house. So I decided to get some cookbooks and teach myself how to cook in college. And then it just sparked from there.
My joy for cooking began when I was able to cook some food that fed and nourished my roommates and friends, and they seemed to enjoy my cooking. Of course there were a lot of botched dishes at the beginning, but I kept at it and I really enjoyed the idea of being able to feed other people and make them happy through something I was able to create with my own two hands. So that's why I began to love cooking and I kept at it.
And throughout my twenties, it was actually the same time that I began losing my vision due to an autoimmune condition called Neuromyelitis Optica or NMO for short. So it affected my optic nerves. So gradually over several years, my vision decreased at the same time that I was really starting to try to learn how to cook. So all the time as my vision would decrease, I would have to relearn and reset myself in the kitchen, how to do the same things over and over again with less and less vision. But I am a persistent person. I probably learned that determination from my parents, or I got that trait from my parents and I kept at it because it was something I loved.
And then when I was in grad school, I decided to audition for MasterChef at the encouragement of my friends and husband, because they thought that being able to cook without vision is something that is an achievement, I guess, in itself. And they thought that it would be interesting for people to learn about the world of vision impairment and how one can navigate in the kitchen. So when I was in grad school, I took a semester off and went to audition for Master Chef and then kept passing challenge after challenge. And then eventually won season three in 2012, which then launched me into the world of cookbook writing. So I wrote a cookbook and then several years later, which was only like two years ago, I opened my first restaurant called the Blind Goat in Houston.
A montage shows:
- Christine preparing meals in her kitchen and also appearing on MasterChef
- Her cookbook, titled: "Recipes from My Home Kitchen"
- (and) savory Vietnamese food from her restaurants
Christine Ha: And then last year in 2020, I opened my second restaurant, Xin Chao, which means “Hello” in Vietnamese, also in Houston. So that's my background in cooking and vision loss in a nutshell.
Russell Shaffer: Great. Thanks, Christine. Next time I'm in Houston, I can't wait to check out your restaurants. I think the question that everybody's dying to know as a follow-up is, what is Gordon Ramsey like off camera?
Christine Ha: He's pretty much exactly how he is on camera. So he's very...vivacious. He is a big personality, very charismatic, says crazier things, even then off camera than on camera. But he's a great personality, very funny, humorous, and a kind person.
Russell Shaffer: Marcus, we'll pivot to you next. Can you share a little bit about your personal journey? What led you to take up music? How that's been a part of your life and how vision loss is woven into your narrative?
On screen: Marcus speaks from a living room with a piano:
Marcus Roberts: Sure. I was born in Jacksonville, Florida. And there was always music playing in my family's house. My mother, she would play mainly gospel music because she's a gospel singer. And so we heard a lot of stuff from Aretha Franklin’s, fantastic “Amazing Grace” recording that she did with James Cleveland, and a lot of Mahalia Jackson. But like most children, at the end of the day, I was listening to pop tunes on the radio.
So I heard a lot of Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang and and Earth, Wind & Fire and the Eagles and many different types of music. But one of the most important lessons that I learned from my mother early on when I was even teaching myself, which is how I started at eight and a half, was that she always said, "People need to feel something when you play. They need to feel like an emotion or something that they can relate to and identify with." So I would play and she would say, "Well, I don't feel anything. So you're going to keep playing this until I feel something." And that was before I knew what key I was playing in or understood any of the complexities of harmony or how rhythms work or texture or instrumentation or any of that stuff.
So that was the most important thing. And then I started, after I went to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, Florida. I had a teacher, Hubert Foster, who was also blind. And to this day, I don't know how he taught me because I was a pain to deal with at 11 or 12. Thought I knew a lot more than I did, had no interest in learning braille music notation. I would tear my music up and pretend I lost it.
And so he was very patient and forced me to learn braille music and forced me to be literate and learn harmony and staff notation, all that sort of thing.
On screen: A montage shows Marcus playing piano, on stage, with his jazz trio.
Marcus Roberts: And as a result of that good foundational training, I was able to go to Florida State after I left high school and study with the great Romanian pianist who had studied at the Juilliard School under Madam Rosina Levine. And so he taught me a lot about piano technique and tone, and I played Beethoven sonatas and all this sort of thing, but my real love and still is, is jazz music. Because the freedom and equality that is available in that music and the virtuosity that you can reach for helps to illustrate in music what I feel we deserve in our lives.
So as a result of that training, I was able to pursue and help to teach other young people about jazz music, how to play it. And I went on the road when I was 21 with a great trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis. I was on the road with him for, I don't know, five, six years. And then I've just been leading my own bands and trying to become a better musician ever since. That's the short story, if you will.
Russell Shaffer: Thanks, Marcus. I love the part you mentioned about the emotion and the music. I think that's the power of music. To bring forth what somebody is feeling in their heart. And you said it well. You mentioned going on the road in your early twenties with, with Wynton Marsalis. What an experience. Can you share maybe your favorite or most interesting story from the road, a quick one?
Marcus Roberts: Well, actually it was kind of funny and it speaks to something I'm sure we'll get into later, as far as even really intelligent, cultured. people's misunderstanding of blindness. I was rehearsing one of Wynton's tunes at his house before we played our first gig. And we were rehearsing this tune called “Black Codes from the Underground.” And not that you care, but it starts…
Side note: Marcus plays the piano.
Marcus Roberts: It’s like a five rhythm and it goes on at very the beginning of it. But anyway, we were rehearsing that and I was messing it up. And he goes, "Man, you messing this up." Of course, he used a lot more colorful language. And he said, "Well, why are you messing this up?" He said, "Oh, well, maybe it's because you're blind." He says, "Maybe that's it." And he says-- No. I said, "No, that's not it. You, that-- [laughter] Stevie Wonder has good rhythm. Ray Charles has...that's not it. And I said, "It's just a matter of us rehearsing it until I can get it." So the point is, that was one of those rare moments of intersection where people come together with an understanding based on the experience that they create together, that helps them to really get what the issues are in a way that you would never, ever be able to get to them in terms of just talking it through or dealing with direct persuasion.
So that was one experience. But one of my most treasured experiences was when we played George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major, I did an arrangement of that for Seiji Ozawa with his orchestra in Japan, great conductor of the Boston Symphony for many years. And then he went to the Vienna State Opera. But in this case, we were working with the Berlin Philharmonic.
And I have to tell you, they being a great German orchestra had no interest in George Gershwin anything. And so, when we rehearsed it, my drummer, who happens to be Wynton's youngest brother, Jason Marsalis, great drummer. And he could not link with the orchestra because they refused to follow his beat. They just refused to do it. And I'll never forget after the first rehearsal, Maestro Ozawa, he was very upset. And I remember I said, "Are you okay, Maestro?" He says, "They don't think there's any music here. We will see." And the next morning he dismissed us and said, "We don't need you. I'll let you know when it's time.” And so they were also doing Gershwin's American in Paris, and he rehearsed that piece with that orchestra, the greatest orchestra arguably on the planet, measure by measure. And when he got through with them, they couldn't wait to play Concerto in F. [laughter]
And so, we played it at their Waldbühne festival, which is a summer festival and there were like 20,000 people there or something like that. And it was just a really majestic experience for me when I think back on it.
Russell Shaffer: That's great. I felt like you just took me into one of those in-the-club conversations that happens in clubs with bands all across the country. So what beautiful and rich insight into the life of a touring musician. Thank you for that Marcus.
Marcus Roberts: Sure thing.
Russell Shaffer: Hoby, we will go to you next. So same question for you. Tell us a little bit about your personal journey and what led you into chemistry and how that intersects with your love and your knowledge of wine and how that's all swirled together with your vision loss story to create a beautiful narrative.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Well, thank you, Russell. And just a heartfelt thanks to the American Foundation for the Blind for inviting all of us to this great roundtable to connect and have a conversation about not only the great work of the AFB, but just to talk about what people are doing in the world who happen to be blind. And again, it's an honor to sit at the table with you all. For a little bit of context, I am a 33-year-old Caucasian man wearing a light blue button down t-shirt and I'm now sitting in my dining room at my dining room table. Maybe it's fitting, maybe not, but I know there's a huge corkscrew made of wood and metal just behind me.
And so just a bit about my story, I was born completely blind. And the condition where I lost my eyesight—I always say eyesight instead of vision, because I think all of us have vision. Some of us just might lack eyesight. But my eyesight loss was due to a condition called microphthalmia which means small eye. And they really don't know how I acquired that. I was just born that way and the rest is history. Chemistry came into my life through an amazing high school chemistry instructor who just has an infectious passion for the subject and deep care, and really inspired me to go on and study chemistry in college. It was interesting because she and I would often have conversations where she was totally excited about chemistry, but would just warn me against maybe studying chemistry saying, "Yeah, you know, it's quite visual and I don't know how you’re going to do this." And I remember the second week of the second semester of honors chemistry in my junior year of high school, I went in and I said, "I understand what you're saying about chemistry being visual, but I've got to tell you that nobody can see atoms. And chemistry really is a cerebral subject."
And from that point, she became a true ally of mine. Now in parallel to the route through chemistry and to my entire life. I didn't realize what I was doing as a young child until much later, but I'd been developing my palate and really paying attention to what things smell, taste, and feel like around me. And I didn't know that I was doing this until I really got heavy into wine, but it turns out that ever since I was a young child, I'd been placing aromas and flavors in my mind, like vocabulary words, and really learning this language of aroma, flavor, and texture, just like I would learn the definitions of vocabulary words.
So when Francis Ford Coppola's team called me in 2011 and asked me to co-innovate with Francis a truly blindfolded wine experience, I jumped at the chance. And it was that that made me realize, "Oh, I really developed a good palate here." Now I should say that I was born and raised in Sonoma County, which is just north of San Francisco in California, and is definitely iconic in the wine industry. So growing up here, I've always had a passion for things that are super local occurring around me. And knowing that grapes were being grown all around me and then bottled up and sold as a premium product throughout the world, really intrigued me. That sparked me to take a couple of wine classes at the University of California-Davis, and really get excited about wine making and wine tasting and wine appreciation, which ultimately led me to work with Coppola.
A montage shows:
- illustration of an atom and the periodic table - a sign marked "Francis Ford Coppola Winery" - wine barrels in a massive storehouse - Hoby participating in a wine-tasting event - a map of Sonoma county - and acres of vineyards
Dr. Hoby Wedler: But the most important thing to me and I'll close with this Russell, the most important thing to me in life is allowing others to see the good in themselves and finding what makes people tick and celebrating that and just allowing everybody the space and the opportunity to be their best selves, to put their best foot forward and really challenge themselves and succeed at whatever it is they want. And that's the gift that I hope to give the world someday is just that love of challenging ourselves and just appreciate it. I love people and I want everybody to be appreciated for who they are.
Russell Shaffer: Wow. That's an awesome gift, Hoby. And I certainly echo that sentiment and encourage everybody to try to follow your suit there.
I think it's clear from each of your stories that you're all incredibly accomplished, passionate, creative, resilient professionals in your chosen field. I know I, for one, feel blessed in a lot of ways by my experience with vision loss. I feel like it's put me in positions where I need to think out of the box. I need to be more resilient. I need to be creative. Can you talk a little bit about your respective creative processes in your own disciplines? Where does your passion, your spark, come from?
Dr. Hoby Wedler: I'll jump out here first. This is Hoby. And I'll just say that what makes me tick is my love of teaching and my love of learning, and really, that's where I get my creative inspiration is when I can learn about something and then explain it to someone who may not necessarily be thinking about it in the same way and create a, you know, just a "Wow," sort of an "Oh, that's so interesting" moment, and then inspire that person to think about it further or understand it further. You know what, it gives us a creative spark. I think that seeing the world differently... This is all about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So Russell, speaking your language from the corporate world, it's like if we see the world differently, just a different way... I don't want to say better or worse or anything. That is a diverse perspective that adds so much color to the conversation, and so much importance. And that's what my lack of eyesight does for me, is it just allows me to see the world differently. And I love to add that diversity to conversations or the workplace wherever I possibly can.
Russell Shaffer: Totally. That's a good word. And Christine, how about you? What's your muse? What inspires you?
Christine Ha: For me, a lot of it is based on travels, but I think if you dig deeper, the travels allow me to meet people from all different walks and regions in life. So I think for me, when I meet people, that's truly what inspires me in my own creative fields. Whether it be writing or cooking, I feel like when you travel to another region or country, and you sit down with someone that lives there and eat the foods that they eat regularly, you get to understand people on a different level. There's a human connection.
I think food, I always say, is universal. And I think even if you don't speak the same language, or come from the same background, or led the same paths in life, I think that there's that human connection that food does for people. And I think it's because part of it is we all need food to sustain ourselves. We all eat. We all have food. It helps make us strong, get through the day, and so I think there's that commonality of food. And so when I meet people and I learn about their culture through what they eat, that really inspires me to come back to my own kitchen and think, "What did I learn from them? And what did I learn from their cuisine that I could maybe put into my own cooking?" So that's really what inspires me is the travel and the people I meet during my travels.
Russell Shaffer: Yeah and that's a good word. When I meet new people, a lot of times, as somebody who's blind, they assume that you can just sit around at home and don't go anywhere. And I've been so fortunate to travel the world in my job, from England, to China, to the Dominican Republic, as part of my work, and all across the United States. And one of my favorite things is to find those local places to eat that really help you get a sense of the flavor of the community, and then that's how you really build those connections. So I love that, Christine. Marcus, how about you? Where do you draw your inspiration?
Marcus Roberts: My inspiration comes from... a couple things. One, I do love the piano, so I'm always fascinated with what one can write for or perform on the instrument since it has a 300 year history...
On screen: A video clip shows Marcus playing a large piano.
Marcus Roberts: ...and was written for by Mozart and Beethoven, to Duke Ellington, to Ahmad Jamal, and it's been used in every important American genre.
But my specific interest and inspiration lies in wanting to find ways to integrate the authenticity that we find in folk music, meaning this is the part of music that somebody could have been humming like 500 years ago. And to integrate that with different, more, perhaps, sophisticated modern forms so that that intersection produces relevance for right now in our current times.
So just figuring out a way, through the understanding of these folk styles, how to integrate them into intricate formal designs, but that still sound good so that regular people don't have to worry about that. It's like when Christine cooks up one of those real elaborate dishes, all you know is that, "Man, that tastes good. What was that?" And so in music, we want to achieve the same thing. We don't want to shortchange people because people are living in very complicated and involved lives. So I like to produce music that acknowledges that and deals with that, but it still has that folk essence that says that on a fundamental level, we're all struggling with the same issues. And if we could use that to come together, I think a lot of the confusion and a lot of the conflict in terms of human interaction would be solved.
Russell Shaffer: I love what you said there, Marcus, about the universality of the piano. It reminds me... My music, I came up in the eighties and nineties with rock and alternative and punk. One of my favorite bands is Sleater-Kinney. Riot Grrrl band, punk rock, very heavy. Their latest album, “The Center Won't Hold”, they did a piano song for the first time. And just laying that emotion of Corin Tucker's vocals against a piano ballad... Just beautiful the way in which you're able to transcend, but still keep that essence of who you are as an artist, but do something completely different. That's a beautiful thing. So thanks for sharing that.
Marcus Roberts: Sure.
Russell Shaffer: As we talked about at the outset, we're certainly living in turbulent times from the pandemic, to racial injustice, to civil unrest that popped up in 2020 and seem to have followed us into 2021. It's been a challenging time for anyone. Again, this is a question for all of you. I wonder if you'd share a little bit of just about how you go about day-to-day, how your work or life might be impacted by the goings on, and in any way in which vision loss might be a part of that story for you.
Marcus Roberts: The pandemic has been... very tough for creative people who need audiences. And I suppose one could argue that when you go to a restaurant, I mean, that's an audience of people from disparate circumstances who want a meal. So that commonality brings people to restaurants, and then a lot of times, they'll go from the restaurant to the concert hall.
When the pandemic hit, even when it hit and we didn't really know what it was here, we weren't sure exactly what it all meant. I was in New York rehearsing some of Duke Ellington's later works, and I did some arrangements for the American Symphony Orchestra.
On screen: A promotional video shows scenes from an orchestral concert.
Text On screen: - Stern Auditorium - Perelman stage at Carnegie Hall - "The Genius of Duke Ellington" - The Power of Full Orchestra - Leon Botstein - Two World Premiere Arrangements by the Marcus Roberts Trio - Catherine Russell - March 12th, 8 PM, Carnegie Hall
Marcus Roberts: And we had done all the rehearsing, and we had everything ready to go, and we were supposed to play at Carnegie Hall. And at about four o'clock, really around three o'clock, the Metropolitan Opera shut everything down. And then Broadway shut everything down, so we all knew the writing was on the wall.
So around five o'clock—that was going to be the last concert before Carnegie Hall shut down, and they just decided to shut it down that night. So that was my introduction to the pandemic. And then within 48 hours, all of the shows that I had on my schedule for the next year were all canceled, of course. And so I had to figure out how... we could keep jazz music, classical music relevant, how we could respond to this adversity of our concert being canceled with the American Symphony. How could we respond to it in a way that was assertive? And so we decided I would arrange some original pieces that I composed for them. And I composed it for their string orchestra, and for my larger ensemble, which is called a Modern Jazz Generation.
But the challenge for me, being a blind musician is, well, how am I going to get all this music written out? And how am I going to figure out how to get the video to work, and how we got to actually do this huge thing? And ultimately, I won't get into too much detail, but it just took technology. There's a program called Reaper. I use that to do, you know... Once the work was done in the Sibelius program, which is a composition program... I composed everything in that program. And then everything was recorded and reprinted, and I had to edit and mix it. And then after that, all of the video folks had to get involved because people were in different cities. Some people were in New Orleans, some people were in Florida, some people were in Washington, D.C.
On screen: A montage shows Marcus performing in a dazzling virtual concert.
Text on Screen:
United we Play.
The Modern Jazz Generation. American Symphony Orchestra. Three World Premiere Compositions.
Music by Marcus Roberts. A short film created in response to the turbulence of 2020. Premieres December 9 on ASO Online.
Hashtag: United We Play. Hashtag: Great Music For Everyone.
Marcus Roberts: So, it's called United We Play. And I wanted to just make that statement that if we stay united, even in this case of symbolically uniting jazz music with classical music, that would be a metaphor or a symbol of what we need to do in America.
Russell Shaffer: That's an amazing story, Marcus. Christine, how about you? How's the pandemic impacted you and your work?
Christine Ha: Well, obviously owning restaurants during this time, it's definitely been tough. The Blind Goat was the only restaurant that I had open at the start of the pandemic. The second one, Xin Chao, was already in the works. We'd already signed the lease. We were doing well before the pandemic hit, and then immediately afterwards, I would say our sales dropped by 80%. So we had to pivot quickly. I think that the positive note is that we are a small, independent, local restaurant, and we were able to pivot quickly. It's not like there was a lot of bureaucracy to change quickly to takeout and delivery only.
A montage shows restaurant workers:
- wearing masks as they serve socially distant outdoor diners - preparing orders for delivery and pick-up - and having their temperatures checked with a digital forehead thermometer.
Christine Ha: My number-one priority was always my staff, to make sure that they felt safe at work, and to make sure that they stayed healthy, and whatever they needed financially. It was tough for the business, but it's also tough on people personally, financially, my staff.
So I tried to do a lot of advocacy with legislation and stuff to get federal aid to restaurants so that we could pass it on to our staff. So it was definitely a tough year. Aside from the pandemic, just stuff going on, all this political divisiveness, and the way our country's been going. What I try to remember, though, is what I've said before about how food is universal, and that all human beings need to eat. And I think if I focus on that idea that people at the end of the day... They want a hot meal, or they just want something to sustain themselves. They want comfort food in this time. And if my restaurants, whether people want to come in and eat or order takeout, if I can provide that meal for them and let them feel some sort of sense of normalcy throughout this whole craziness, then I've done what my mission is. And that's the idea of hospitality, is being able to welcome anyone and everyone to your table, regardless of their background or how they want to live their lives.
So I think as long as I focus on that larger picture of what it means to be in hospitality and what it means to have a restaurant is to feed people, and welcome them, and make them feel glad to be alive, then I've accomplished my goal. And so that's what I strive for every day. And some days are harder than others, but I think that's what it's like to be in the restaurant industry. It's definitely tough, but I feel like we're finally starting to possibly see a light at the end of the tunnel. So I'm just hoping that I can weather the two ships of my restaurants and get through this whole thing.
Russell Shaffer: Yeah, yeah. Thanks for that, Christine. I love what you said there. That sweet spot between the normalcy for patrons who just want to get out in a safe and social distanced way, but just to be able to experience something outside of the four walls of their home. And sticking with you, Christine, we set out at the top that we had a surprise here for everybody. And thinking about the times that we are living in, these challenging and turbulent times... To quote a music reference, we need to put a little love in our hearts. We need to find a little togetherness. We need to nourish our souls as well as our bodies and our minds and our spirits.
And so Christine and Hoby and Marcus have curated a very special food and wine menu and a playlist of music just for this occasion, which can be found on afb.org/100. And just take a few minutes. I'd love to hear the inspiration for you to share a little bit about what you selected and why, and what it means to you, and what you hope those watching today will get out of it. Christine, why don't we start with you, and what led you to choose the menu that you did?
Christine Ha: Sure. Menu creation is always something I really love. I think it puts me to the test to think not only creatively, but also strategically. It works both sides of my brain. So for this event, I wanted to think about what would make this occasion or this dinner special, but I didn't want the recipes or the meal to be too complicated for people to create at home. There's people that will be trying this at all different levels of culinary skills, so I didn't want to make something that the ingredients would be hard to find, or it's 20 steps to make a dish. I wanted to keep it fairly simple, but when you sit down and eat it, it's still comforting, and it's still delicious, and it still feels a little special.
Text on screen:
Dinner and Music for a Historic Celebration.
Christine Ha: So for me, I curated a three-course meal. The menu consists of an appetizer, a main, and a dessert, of course. And I wanted to make this, aside from it being a special occasion and such a tumultuous time that all of us are living through, I wanted it to also be celebratory whether you're sharing this meal with a significant other, or your family, or just by yourself. Self-care is important as well.
So I thought about that, and I decided to go with three dishes. The first one is a goat-cheese-stuffed date. So, this is very simple. It uses very little ingredients. But it's nicely balanced because you've got the sweetness from the date, you've got the tartness from the goat cheese, the saltiness from the prosciutto, and then the sweetness from the honey that gets drizzled on at the end. So, that's the first course. It's a couple biters that's really easy to make because all you really need is a broiler in the oven.
The second course is a penne alla vodka. So this is also fairly simple and I love eating this because it's comforting, but then it feels a little bit festive because it's pasta and that's like, Italian is a romance language. So I wanted to go with something fairly simple, but comforting as well. So this penne alla vodka, you just make the sauce using a creamy tomato sauce. There's a little bit of vodka involved that gets cooked off. So to bring out the tartness and those in or to alleviate the tartness of the tomato and bring out more of its sweetness. There's a little bit of Italian sausage and pancetta that goes in there as well for added flavor.
But of course, if you're vegetarian, you can opt out to do vegetarian wise and you can leave the meats out or get a vegan substitute for that.
And of course, dessert, I had to do something that included chocolate because chocolate is just something that when you eat it, it does release certain hormones in your mind that makes you happier. So I felt like all of us could use a little bit of happiness. So what I went with was a simple but decadent chocolate sauce that gets topped over strawberries. And then you can also add scoops of vanilla ice cream if you want even a more to your dessert. So that's my three course meals, the goat-cheese-stuffed dates, the penne alla vodka, and the strawberries with chocolate sauce.
Russell Shaffer: Wow. It all sounds delicious. My mouth is watering. Hoby, as we transition over to you, you actually took your inspiration for the wine pairings from Christine's menu. Can you tell us a little bit about the science behind that and the inspiration? You referenced the Coppola collection and that's what you pulled from. Tell us a little bit more about that process and what you selected.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: And let me tell you the best part about my job is that, I get to, and I secretly do my job because I get to partner with amazing chefs like Christine, and of course, if I'm going to pair her dishes with wine, I've got to make them first. And kudos to you, Christine, and especially the date and the pasta alla vodka that just really, and the desserts as well. But like the way the pancetta and the Italian sausage just really mixed with the tomatoes and cream and vodka and that vodka sauce, it's just, it's stunning.
Text on Screen:
Dr. Hoby Wedler: My goal as a sensory expert and a wine expert, my goal is really to find a pairing that really highlights the food and also lets the wine shine in and of itself in its own unique way.
So I want to just talk through a few of the wine pairings, what you see bottles here next to me, I just want to describe the setup a little bit for those who can't see it with their eyes. I'm starting on—closest to me is a bottle and a glass just in front of it of a Sauvignon Blanc from Coppola. This is actually 2019 Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection Sauvignon Blanc. And my dear friend and mentor Corey Beck, who heads up wine making in the whole company there at The Family Coppola, I think this is his best Sauvignon Blanc to date; I mean the 2019 is just stunning.
And then moving in the middle of this collection of bottles, we have a very iconic bottle, which is a gold-netted bottle, and that is the Francis Ford Coppola 2018 claret. Talk about that in a second. And just furthest from me also with respective glass, is a dessert wine, which is a Francis Ford Coppola, 2016, late-harvest Petite Sirah. So what I'm picking up right now is a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. And I paired this with Christine's date. Because what we have featured in this wine.
On screen: Hoby holds the glass of white wine to his nose.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Just on the nose, is a really bright fruit note of a little bit of citrus.
And then also some pear, a little bit of apple, a little bit of underripe white peach going on there. This one is slightly chilled in the glass. So this wine has a low 3 pH, so 3.1, 3.2, maybe a touch higher, but it really works well to counterbalance the prosciutto and the goat cheese. The goat cheese, as Christine said, has nice acidity to it. And that just the creaminess of the goat cheese mixed the sweetness of the date works so well with a really crisp white wine, like this one.
I'm going to move on to the Claret, which is what I've decided to pair with the penne alla vodka now for a couple of reasons. So this wine on the nose is just full of your dark fruits. Let's do this, a little party trick. I'm actually doing this right now, where I hold the glass in one hand and swirl it, rock it back and forth with my other hand, fully capping the top of the glass to really trap the aroma between the palm of my hand and the liquid level of the glass. And I smell this. Oh my gosh, the blueberry and blackberry, sort of a blackberry compote, a lot of really dark like pomegranate seed, leather, a little bit of a fresh, sticky tobacco, and you taste it. And it's just, Francis Ford Coppola when he made this wine, actually did it because he found a bottle of Claret, made by a winemaker named Gustaf Niebaum at his Napa property. And it was from the 1800s and he opened it and tasted it. And it still tasted amazing. So he was inspired to make a Claret from some of California's finest vineyards. And that's what we have here.
The reason I went with this rich, deep, rich red wine to pair with Christine's vodka sauce in particular is because I mentioned the creaminess of the tomato that just coats your palate. And you want something to cut through that richness a little bit. And this wine, I think does a brilliant job of creating that balance. You take a nice bite of pasta with the rich sauce. And of course I'm a meat-eater so rich pancetta and the Italian sausage. But then you cut right through the fat of the cream with the tannins and acidity of this wine. And it's just, it works really, really well.
And then finally, we have this beautiful late-harvest dessert wine from the Coppola collection, 2016. just an absolutely gorgeous late harvest. The grapes are harvested at very high sugar and then fermented down, not all the way to dryness, but, which means no sugar, but then there, the wine is a bit fortified as well.
On screen: Hoby takes a sip of the wine.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Yeah, it's just, you can totally taste the red wine and the tannins there. But it's sweet, and it really pulls on the palate in such a nice way. And when you pair that with the robust, beautiful bursting, the best way I can describe a strawberry is bursting with flavor.
Now I need to debunk a myth here. A lot of people say, pair red wine, like Cabernet with chocolate. I will never pair a wine with something sweeter than the wine. So if you're going to eat dessert and drink wine, I want you to be eating or drinking a dessert wine instead of trying to pair something like that with a dry red wine. But it has just been an absolute joy to take the amazing artistry of Christine's work and pair some, make my humble attempt in pairing some wines with it.
Russell Shaffer: Thank you, Hoby. You've never made chemistry sounds so tasty. So it's the science lesson and the background—just phenomenal. Thank you for walking us through your process. Meal would not be complete without a little ambiance, a little setting of the mood. And for that, we'll turn to Marcus. He put together a phenomenal 30-track playlist. Some childhood songs that I remember were favorites of my mom, like "Endless Love" and "Unchained Melody" all the way up through one of my personal favorites, “Georgia On My Mind" from the incomparable Ray Charles. Marcus, why don't you talk us through how the menu and the wine mixed together led you to pull it together, this particular playlist. And what it means and what you hope the listeners will get out of it.
Marcus Roberts: Well, again, kudos to Christine and Hoby for providing such a rich, balanced selection of food and wine. It just makes you want to eat right now and have a little wine. And I may, from time to time taste some of this wine myself, I got it right heren too, and–
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Join me Marcus, it's delicious.
Marcus Roberts: You got it. So the way I approach music...
Text on screen: The Music.
Marcus Roberts: ...music can be in the foreground, or it can be in the background. That's what makes ituniversal and global. And in this case, it's in the background,it's supposed to support the mood that is generated by the food and the wine.
So...there are five stages to what this playlist is. Now don't worry if the timelines don't exactly work, everybody should do things at their pace. And I tried to be flexible with the playlist, or it really doesn't matter where it falls in terms of your given stage, but I'm just going to give you the stages that I thought about. And it basically came down to half an hour for preparation of the meal, which I'm sure I'm wrong about that to some extent, but it was just a guesstimate. And then an hour to get through the three courses and then a half hour to kind of wind down, or dance, or chill, or talk, or whatever you want to do. So the playlist starts with, and there are a couple other things I felt like, well, since we're celebrating AFB and 100 years, I think we can't do that if we don't acknowledge some of our great blind artists, and there are many more that I couldn't fit in.
But we started with one of our greatest. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life." That’s Stevie Wonder, and from Talking Book and these blind folks, we know what Talking Book means and what that is. And that happened to be his third number-one hit that reached number one on the Billboard charts. And the single came out in '73 that's—and the other thing I want to point out about this playlist is I tried to make it genre neutral. So there's jazz, there's pop, there's rock, there's classical, there's piano, there's orchestra.
“Come Rain or Come Shine,” the great Sarah Vaughan from “The Divine Sarah Vaughan,” and she's just, oh my God, a fantastic singer with a four-octave vocal range and played piano, believe it or not, in Billy Eckstine's great band, but never got recorded in the early 40s.
And at this point I'm thinking, the dinner’s probably ready to go. And now we're ready for the appetizer. And that's going to start with a piece by the great Maurice Ravel, French composer. And the name of the song is “Jeux d’eau,” French, meaning water games or water play. And this particular, this is solo piano. The great Martha Argerich, who in my opinion, is the greatest living concert pianist, from her debut recital. And so that's how we start. Funny, quick story about Ravel. He went to the Paris Conservatory at about 15 or 16 years old and studied piano. But somehow he managed to get expelled because he didn't win a competitive prize for three years. So they kicked him out... in 1895. And then he went back again and he got kicked out again because he didn't win a competitive competition. And he was kicked out in 1900 and “Jeux d’eau” was written in 1902. So go figure. It just goes to show that these stereotypes or these rules and people not being able to think outside the box. I guess it didn't start in 2020, did it?
And before I go into the main course, I'm going to take a quick taste of this first...
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Yeah. Take a taste of this Sauvignon Blanc with me, Marcus. It's a fun one.
Marcus Roberts: Yeah, let me...Hmm.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Hmm!
Marcus Roberts: Oh my, I'll tell you... That. Is. Exquisite. And I can picture having some of those dates and… Oh man, yeah. Now when we get to the main course. The first one is, we have, next... the wonderful “In My Life,” Jose Feliciano from “Feliciano!” And that just features his classic, the two acoustic guitar, that came out in 1968. And it's just fantastic. And I'll be honest with you, I kind of like his version better than the Beatles version. I'm sure a lot of folks would politely disagree with me, but I don't know. But it was written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And they both argued over who wrote what. And so supposedly McCartney wrote the harmony and the bridge and somebody else took credit for the piano solo and blah, blah, blah. So it goes on.
Then we go to “I Can't Stop Loving You.” We know who that is, that's Ray Charles from “Love Songs,” and it was one of his country hits. And like Ray said, and this is what I believe about music in general, "Great music tells stories or it sets a mood," but he believed in that and the country people loved it. And we go to the great incomparable Duke Ellington. This is called “Where or When,” from Ellington’s “Indigos,” it is a wonderful record if you get a chance to check it out, just very soothing, very lovely, relaxing music by a complete master of American music.
Next we have, “I Will Always Love You,” and I chose Dolly Parton's version because she wrote it. It's from “Jolene.” But of course the most famous version was done by Whitney Houston. And they're both fantastic. They're different, but Dolly definitely puts you in a real calm, wonderful mood with this particular version. And then I put a version of “Mood Indigo,” which was written by Duke Ellington from a record, I did called “Alone with Three Giants,” that I did for Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington and supposedly Duke Ellington wrote this fantastic piece, beautiful piece. He wrote it in 20 minutes while his mother was preparing dinner. So one of 1,500 fantastic pieces that he wrote. And I'm going to, before we get to dessert, I'm going to try this fantastic wine here that matches the main course.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Yeah. Tell me if you get that nice alfalfa and tobacco.
Marcus Roberts: Yeah, this is great.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Mm-hmm.
Marcus Roberts: I got to tell you. Yeah, Christine, she hooked it up. She set the table and we just had to make sure we didn't screw anything up.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: I'll always agree to that. I'll tell you.
Marcus Roberts: So this is fabulous. And now for dessert, our playlist starting with dessert starts with “Your Song.” For those of you who are Elton John fans. And it's from a record, self-titled “Elton John,” beautiful, I love that song. And contrasted with now the great Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer for You.” Right? Which we all know that.
On screen: Marcus reaches over to the piano keys, with one hand, and plays piano keys.
Marcus Roberts: That's that one. That's from “Aretha Now.”
And next we have, and I'm not good with languages. I barely can speak English, but this is opera, “O Mio Babbino Caro.” Puccini, La Bohème. And this is Renée Fleming with the London Phil. Just fantastic singing. Oh my, she's just, aw, just legendary.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Marcus, I pulled that one up yesterday.
Marcus Roberts: Oh, did you? Yeah.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: God, that voice!
Marcus Roberts: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it makes you mad, doesn't it?
Dr. Hoby Wedler: It stuns me.
Marcus Roberts: Yeah. And this is followed by another great voice and it’s “Georgia on My Mind.” That's Ray Charles from “The Genius Hits the Road,” and it's just classic. That somebody from Georgia, who went through all that discrimination and all the trials and tribulations that he went through, that in 1979, a segregationist state like Georgia, made that song its state song. So that's progress for you. Now, I'm going to try this dessert wine. And let's see, let's see what's going on with it.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: When you try that, you'll notice the tannins and the beautiful mouth feel along with the sugar.
Marcus Roberts: Oh, wow. Man and these are such exquisitely different wines to represent the different stages of the meal.
Dr. Hoby Wedler: You know it.
Marcus Roberts: So now we segue into the after dinner. If you want to dance, if you want to just relax and chill or do nothing at all, but we've got some songs to wind down and it starts with another one of our very innovative voices, Bocelli, Andrea Bocelli with “Can't Help Falling in Love,” which is from Live at Las Vegas, 2005. And just his voice is so beautiful, so rich, so warm. I mean there's not much to really say.
Text on screen:
Marcus Roberts: And we close with "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" from The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky. It should bring your dinner evening to a close with clarity and power and hopefully a beautiful experience that you will think about for many days, weeks, and months to come.
Russell Shaffer: Awesome. Again, thank you, Marcus! The menu, the wine selection, and the playlist can all be found at afb.org/100. So as we get ready to wrap up, I could talk to these three all day and I'm sure you could listen in as well, but as we bring closure on our program, we'll end where we began in celebrating a hundred years of the American Foundation for the Blind. And, because you look at Marcus' playlist, as he said, it starts with the great Stevie Wonder, Talking Book, something that resonates in that history of the blindness movement and community in America and Stevie a past recipient of the Helen Keller Achievement Award. I can't think of a better launching-off point. So as we're here to celebrate a hundred years of AFB, Christine, Hoby and Marcus, let's look ahead to the next hundred years.
And as we close out, maybe if we could just get a couple of words, a sentence or two from each of you of what you hope to see us accomplish in the next hundred years for the blindness and low vision community, whether that's advances in public policy or technology, individual attitudes or societal and cultural approach or research or anything in between, what do you hope we can clear as milestones in the next hundred years of AFB? Christine, let's start with you.
Christine Ha: Yeah. I think that... all of those kind of tie in together, you need all of that to make progress. And I often think about when I do a lot of advocacy work for the low vision and blind community, I think about how our access to everything in this world is a right. And it really comes down to it being a civil right as well. So I feel that, you know, oftentimes whether it's the Internet, certain things online, certain places, we’re barred to a certain degree because there's no accommodations in place and we really should start thinking of it in the terms of “my access to this is my civil right.”
So I think as we make that progress, it really does involve public policy legislation. It involves changing the minds and attitudes of the community of people who are sighted, how they view us that leads to more equal opportunity and employment and it's education. It's more technology so that we can adapt to living in a society that consists of a lot of sighted people. I think all of these things go hand in hand. At the end of the day, it does stem from educating the world on the idea that people with vision impairment can achieve the same things, but we just might need a little bit of adaptation. And I think, you know, if people can change their attitude and their way of thinking to see the blind community in that way, then we can continue to make progress. So, that's my hope. And I think it will happen in the next a hundred years and we'll continue down that path.
Russell Shaffer: I agree with the sentiment and the vision, I think the 21st century is going to just continue to be the democratization of the digital landscape. And it's incumbent upon everybody to make sure that people with disabilities, particularly those who are blind and low vision aren't left behind and have access to everything that innovation is bringing forward. Marcus, how about you? What, what's your hope for the next hundred years?
Marcus Roberts: Well, I think Christine summed it up pretty well. I would only piggyback on it and say that in my estimation, the biggest thing that has to happen because we've had tremendous technological advancement. We have blind people achieving many, many courageous and great things, but we still have a society and a culture who's hanging on to a lot of misconception and adhering to old beliefs. So until that changes, it's going to be very difficult for us to give our young blind children a fair chance, because if people look at you with a stereotypical way that is not flattering, it represents that there is a fear of disability that's very unhealthy in our society. When in fact all people are struggling with something—it's not just disabled people. There are many successful sighted folks who run companies and who are great athletes and great singers, but there's a whole lot wrong with them, but you can't see it.
So I think it's important that we fight so that our disability, though we unfortunately can't shield it from people and we can't really hide it. And it's out there. It's important that everybody realizes that actually we can help them figure out better ways to handle the things that are wrong with them. If we get a fair chance and if we can change these misconceptions, and if we can get people to change based on the experience of working with blind folks who are competent and who know what they're doing, perhaps that will lead us in the direction of the changes that we want in attitude.
Russell Shaffer: Yes, yes. Curiosity, it's the antidote to ignorance and discrimination. And now's a perfect time for us to listen, learn, and lead where we are and to embrace those people that are different and to foster that inclusiveness.
Marcus Roberts: I do want to acknowledge this hundred years of AFB and the impact and the influence that it's had on all of us. We've all benefited from your work. We have all been represented well by all of the hard work and relentless perseverance that it takes to keep an organization like that going and to help all of the people who it serves. And I do have a great feeling about the next hundred years of what this organization will add to our children, young adults and all of us.
Russell Shaffer: Hoby, we'll leave it with you for the last word on this topic. What is your hope for the next hundred years?
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Thank you so much again, for the opportunity to participate. My hope is that we may continue to make the world a more inclusive and accessible space as much as we possibly can, but you know, here's a conversation between four—three, definitely, I'd like to think I'm accomplished, but four presumably accomplished blind folks. I'm going to say that it's all on us a little bit to help figure out how to make this world different and how to get people to accept us and understand us. And it's all about, in my opinion, working hard to show people not necessarily tell them, but show them what we can do. It's about creating relationships and creating these opportunities and that's what I think the AFB is going to be so good at over the next hundred years is to educate and continue to show the world what we're capable of. And lastly, what I think we need right now in this country or in this world is a lot of love and a lot of positivity and a lot of appreciation for each other and for everything that we've done thus far.
Russell Shaffer: Thanks, Hoby, that part about people who are blind role modeling what success looks like and standing up and being champions and advocates for inclusion, sounds like a great plug for our AFB's Blind Leaders Development Program, which is helping to raise up that next generation of blind leaders to go out and do just that. So we'll press, not stop, but pause for now on this conversation, such a lovely and rich conversation, one that I have benefited from so greatly.
I just want to say thank you to Christine, Marcus, and Hoby for sharing your time and talents with me and with our audience today. And thanks to our audience for tuning in to an evening with AFB in celebration of the hundred-year anniversary of this tremendous organization, AFB would not be able to fulfill its mission of creating a world of no limits for people who are blind and low vision without the generous support of its donors.
If something struck you about AFB's mission, or you want to get involved and support the policy, the research and advocacy work, or you want to learn more about how you can help support programs like Blind Leaders Development, you can become a donor of AFB right online. It's as simple as going to afb.org/donate that's A-F-B dot O-R-G forward slash donate. And I hope you will. This is just one in a series of programs and events that AFB is curating throughout this year, its 100th anniversary to share the story of AFB, but also to help lift our spirits in these challenging and troubling times.
If you, again, want to find those menus, wine selections, and playlist or see what else is coming in the centennial celebration, visit afb.org/100. On behalf of Christine, Marcus, Hoby and everyone at AFB, thank you again for joining us. Be safe and be well.
On screen: Hoby lifts a glass of wine:
Dr. Hoby Wedler: Cheers to the next hundred years.
Russell Shaffer: Cheers.
Text on screen: American Foundation for the Blind would like to thank our Centennial Sponsors for their generous support.
- JPMorgan Chase and Company
- (and) Hewlett Packard Enterprise
- Northrop Grumman
- Pepco, an Exelon Company
- U.S. Bank
- (and) Walmart
- Charter Communications
- (and) Challenger Gray and Christmas, Inc. "Guiding Change - Getting Results"