ARTFULLY flicking melted chocolate across a pile of cream-topped meringues, head chef Jo Miller puts the finishing touches to pudding. It is mid-morning in the kitchen of the Concept Conference Centre, an unassuming office block in central Birmingham where various businesses and charities hire rooms for training days and seminars. Soon, 25 or so delegates will file through for lunch. On the menu: oriental marinated chicken, ratatouille, filled potato skins, winter coleslaw and, for those who have any room left, gooey brownies and those meringues. Jo leans in close to inspect her handiwork. 'I cant really see what Im doing, she chuckles, adding a few more flicks, before arranging the splendid-looking little meringue towers on a dish. She is not joking. Jo, 48, is registered blind - and so are the five other kitchen staff who are busily preparing lunch around her. When I was invited to spend a day in the Concept kitchen - the first and only of its kind in Britain - the combination of sharp knives, naked flames, scalding pans of water and five blind cooks was an alarming prospect. But Jo relishes proving the sceptics wrong. 'At first, when people hear about the kitchen with blind cooks, Im sure theyre expecting to be served a few curled-up sandwiches. But, honestly, people come back here time and again because the food is so good, she says. And the importance of such a project cannot be underestimated. Today more than a million individuals in Britain, about 2.5 per cent of the population, have a visual impairment that is not correctable. The vast majority are over 65, but 80,000 adults of working age and 25,000 children are affected. It is depressing to learn then that 66 per cent of blind and partially sighted people of working age in the UK are unemployed, and 90 per cent of employers rank them as either 'difficult or 'impossible to employ, according to UK charity Action for Blind People. Every day, 100 more Britons begin to lose their sight. Macular degeneration, which affects light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye, glaucoma, which affects the optic nerve, and diabetes-related eye disease are the most common causes of visual impairment. Sight problems are usually picked up during a routine eye test by an optometrist. The patient will then be referred to a relevant consultant ophthalmologist, depending on the type of eye disease suspected. If sight loss is significant, the doctor may give the patient a Certificate of Visual Impairment. This allows the patient to be registered as blind or partially sighted, giving them access to benefits and tax relief. There are approximately 310,000 in the UK on the register. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists estimates that only about 50 per cent of those who would qualify choose to take advantage. Research has shown that about 97 per cent of those registered blind have some residual vision - and this includes all the workers at Concept - although this varies widely from person to person, and over time, as many eye diseases are degenerative. I can understand employers reservations about taking them on, especially when it comes to working in a kitchen. Can it really be safe? 'Yes - as long as the environment is familiar and they have at least some sight, says consultant ophthalmologist Winfried Amoaku, of the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust Queens Medical Centre. 'We do use the word 'blind, but the correct term is 'severe visual impairment. 'Its rare to be totally blind. The majority of patients can see shades and differentiate shapes to varying extents. Some patients have no central vision, while others have no peripheral vision. This variety is why some blind people have guide dogs, some have white sticks and others dont need anything. Back at Concept, kitchen assistant Mary King is chopping peppers and trainee Kevin Johnson grates Parmesan. Everything is made from scratch, with fresh, locally sourced ingredients delivered daily. 'We can cater for around 90, says Jo. No one rushes and there is no shouting. Jo uses a special magnifier, around 2in thick, to read settings on the oven, while all the chefs are helped by scales that talk. DM Martin, the sous chef, chops things quickly but I prefer to take my time, says Mary, 40, who lost all the sight in her left eye due to retinal detachment and has no rightside vision in her right eye thanks to internal bleeding. 'I never cut my fingers, she adds. Trainee Paul Wellington, 39, started in the kitchen last month. He is setting out plates in the canteen area. He feels the edges of surfaces to check things he puts down are lined up. Paul suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which causes tunnel vision. 'We start people on smaller jobs, such as washing up and cleaning, so they can get used to the kitchen environment, says Jo. When moving close to each other, the cooks warn: 'Im behind you. Kevin, 48, who suffers from nystagmus-which causes involuntary eye movement, explains: 'We did have a few close calls at the beginning with people swinging round into each other while carrying boiling pans. Jo adds: 'Because we all have different eye conditions, and different levels of vision, we can all help each other. For instance, Mary and I cant see the settings on the oven, but Martin and Paul can. The Concept kitchen was set up four years ago by the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Action for Blind People to provide employment and training, and the project has been a huge success. Jo regularly lectures on food hygiene at catering colleges and her aim is to place trainees in mainstream commercial kitchens. 'I cant see any reason why not, she says. 'I would never be able to present food in the way expected in a Michelin-starred restaurant, but I could work in one doing something else. At first I assumed that not being able to see might mean their other senses are heightened - perhaps Jo can simply smell the moment the cheese-topped potatoes are browned to perfection. Does she have some kind of sixth sense? 'People romanticise about being blind, probably because it is such a scary prospect, she says. 'In fact, my hearing is terrible, probably thanks to spending much of my teens at rock concerts. I do rely on my sense of smell and taste but no more than any other chef. Mr Amoaku explains: 'Those who go blind in adulthood are basically stuck with the senses they have left, and these wont get any better, although the patient will need to rely on them more. So whats the secret of blind cooking? For Jo, it is simple. 'Cooking is all about timing. For meat we have a temperature probe, and the rest is just second nature to me now. I have been doing this since I was 16 and I know when a piece of steak is medium rare. Jo began to go blind aged nine when she developed Stargardts disease - a genetic condition that affects light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye. She says: 'Anything further than a foot away, and I cant make out detail. I watch television with theatre binoculars, and even then I dont catch everything. I know my limitations and when to ask for help. Jo first attended catering college at 16, qualifying with flying colours. 'Ive had loads of jobs in kitchens and Ive never told any of them about my sight problems. And to be honest I dont think many people noticed. I sampled Jos menu. Everything looked and tasted delicious and I left Concept feeling strongly that visual impairment should be no obstacle to working in a kitchen - something with which sous chef Martin Pugh, who suffers from an optic nerve disease, agrees. 'I lost my sight while working as a kitchen porter and studying for a catering qualification in 1992, he says. 'It destroyed me - I left my job and dropped out of college. I was unemployed, on benefits, until a support worker at the RNIB suggested I apply for a job here. Jo has been an incredible mentor, and encouraged me to go back to college. 'Three years ago I got my qualification. All I needed was for someone to give me a chance. DM