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May 10, 2021

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Shaped by tragedies, Las Vegas chef tackles new challenges after going blind

Chef Regina Mitchell

Steve Marcus

Regina Mitchell, a visually impaired chef, is shown in her kitchen in Henderson, Friday, April 30, 2021. In addition to advocacy work, Mitchell hosts Zoom cooking classes for the visually impaired.

Chef Regina Mitchell

Regina Mitchell, a visually impaired chef, uses a finger guard while chopping in her kitchen in Henderson Friday, April 30, 2021. The finger guard is important as she has limited depth perception, she said. Launch slideshow »

On her best days, Regina Mitchell sees blurry silhouettes when she opens her eyes.

It’s a godsend when she can recognize her husband’s face, one she’s known for almost four decades. The Las Vegas chef likens her condition — bilateral panuveitis and sarcoidosis in her eye — to that of people with deteriorating eyesight who wear prescription glasses, but can’t reach for them when they wake up.

On her worst days, her eyes open to complete whiteout. She’s blind, sick and worn down from chemotherapy treatments.

Just don’t expect her to complain.

“I can give you 1,000 reasons for not doing something, but I'd rather give you 2,000 reasons for doing it,” she said. “And that’s where I am. I want to do it, rather than not do it.”

Mitchell is an advocate for the visually impaired, teaching people with visual disabilities across the web cooking techniques, recipes and safety — which is most paramount.

The eight-week courses that began during the pandemic are hosted by Hadley, a nonprofit education hub for the blind with a 100-year history, where she’s also an adviser.

Husband Stan Mitchell, a pastor and architect, labels his wife of nearly 40 years as a “converter.”

He tells her, “You take tragedy, and you convert it into something that propels you forward.”

“She has learned how to take the most tragic circumstance that can come in life, and she converts them into something positive that produces a better outcome for everybody involved, especially herself,” he said.

During a recent class, Regina Mitchell taught the art of building a sandwich. “And this was no regular sandwich,” she added, describing the creations’ ingredients: oil-toasted ciabatta with sauteed vegetables to plantains, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, and pesto sauce made from scratch.

“OK, you guys come on — I’m a chef,’” she said she quipped to the class. “Not saying that there’s anything wrong with cold cuts.”

Later, with a sense of pride resonating in her voice during an interview, she said: “They were beautiful sandwiches.”

“When I was fully sighted and I was a chef, I saw great evolution in becoming who I wanted to be,” said Regina Mitchell, who didn’t want to disclose her age. “When I lost my vision, I didn’t know how that was going to be possible because I felt like everything was taken from me.”

Through the Hadley education hub, she’d found yet another purpose.

• • •

Mitchell grew up in a happy home.

That changed when her 13-year-old brother — a twin — died from spinal meningitis. Torn by debilitating sorrow, her mother temporarily stopped nurturing her surviving children.

So, inspired by her grandmothers, whom she described as gifted chefs, Mitchell took over kitchen duties. She would also prepare her siblings' school lunches, walk them to school and help them with homework.

Cooking taught her lessons of love and validation.

“They began to love me in a different way,” she said. “Not like an older sister, but one who was actually a parent to them ... this is what you get when you give someone something that is sustainable. You get this feeling of true appreciation and satisfaction.”

Emboldened to become a professional chef, she enrolled at the Seattle Culinary Art Institute. She did so well there, that she was tapped for a fellowship, spending 18 months throughout Europe working alongside world-renowned chefs.

That path eventually landed her in Las Vegas, recruited for a coveted career on the Strip as a butler for high-end clientele, undergoing training like that of the staff at the Royal Household.

“Where I was, I loved it,” she said, describing it as a “very, very lucrative profession. I didn’t think beyond that.”

Then her eyesight started to go.

• • •

Mitchell moved to Las Vegas in 2004 and was hired as a butler at the Skylofts at MGM Grand. Life was great for a few years until she was diagnosed with lupus. Five years later, she took a medical leave of absence and eventually resigned.

Months later, she took the same position at CityCenter.

But in 2011 she began to feel subtle eye pain. She noticed that her timing was off, that she couldn’t put a glass down without making noise and she had to ask her coworkers to help her read.

Later that year, during a vacation in Arizona, she went to the bathroom in the morning, turned on the lights and “nothing happened,” Stan Mitchell said. She let out a scream, he added: “Honey, I can’t see!”

Doctors initially gave her eye drops and said her eyesight would return in a couple of weeks. But her condition only deteriorated.

Unable to work anymore, she decided to enroll at UNLV to study biological sciences. She initially struggled before receiving help from BlindConnect, a skills training center for the visually impaired.

That program, she said, “changed my life. I saw people just like myself.”

Succeeding at UNLV, she was chosen as a speaker at the African American Heritage Ceremony and Graduation in 2018, where she received an award for academic excellence.

She volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Las Vegas, feeding families of sick children. She went back to BlindConnect and began teaching the visually impaired how to cook.

Then the world paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“How am I going to bring cooking back?” she wondered.

That’s how she found Hadley and began teaching her craft through Zoom in September.

Hadley hosts discussion groups for people interested in many subjects to include technology, gardening, writing, crafting, and food through its “What’s Cooking” program, said Julie Tye, president and CEO of the nonprofit.

The organization relaunched its educational platform last summer and saw its registered “learners” numbers explode from about 10,000 to roughly 45,000, Tye said. “People who are visually impaired have a really high degree of desire for connectedness with other people, particularly with other people who are experiencing what they are experiencing.”

Mitchell, who’d become very active in “What’s Cooking,” was identified and brought on as an instructor and adviser, Tye said.

“She’s literally an open book — she really shared her experience,” Tye said. “We realized that she would be such a great tester and a great adviser.”

“She’s just tremendous, her personality is just wonderful,” Tye said. “This is a woman who’s enormously resilient, (with) the ultimate can-do attitude, and she’s thoughtful. She’s persistent.”

• • •

Mitchell’s life is as much about perseverance as it is about the love she has for her family. Her daughter was only 8 when she got sick.

“I never wanted her to come back from school and see me in bed ... and see me sick or some craziness,” Mitchell said. “I wanted her to see me as still her role model … I never wanted a ‘oh poor mommy,’ or ‘oh my mom is very sick,’” she added, explaining her motivation.

Then there’s her “honey,” Stan Mitchell.

The couple, then in their early 20s, met in 1983 during a church-related Christmas event, where both were speakers.

Stan Mitchell had just gotten out of a bad relationship and wasn’t ready to date. Although he found Regina attractive upon first look, he initially avoided making eye contact. His hesitation about love didn’t last. By the end of the church pageant, he asked for her phone number.

"My defenses dropped like a hammer,” he said.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage,” Stan Mitchell said he told her during one of their first conversations. “And she said, ‘I am too, and I know you’re going to marry me.”

Early in their relationship, they made a vow that “nothing will ever cause us to separate,” Stan Mitchell said. “If we ever decided, it would be because we don’t like each other and not let anything ... outside influence us to leave each other.”

That’s a philosophy that’s helped them through Regina Mitchell’s malaises.

“I have seen her as a young woman who has faced so many tragedies and obstacles, and I have seen her climb over them, not with a defeatist attitude,” Stan Mitchell said. “Seen her climb walls, break through barriers, overcome difficult situations with a smile on her face and with a strength in her heart that says, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and it’s going to be good.’”

It’s not as if there aren't tough times. Mitchell undergoes chemotherapy at UCLA once a month.

For their 30th wedding anniversary, the couple had planned a trip but spent it in a hospital instead. Stan Mitchell affectionately described what happened next.

He sat down next to his wife in bed, and they ordered lunch and chocolate cake.

When told about the special occasion, a nurse apologized profusely. “Don’t be sorry, we’re having a great anniversary party right now,” Stan Mitchell remembers them telling the nurse.

“That is the story of our life,” he said. “I am lucky to be a part of her life.”