Chef Benjamin Meyer, of the Westside Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant, likes to theme his rotating chef’s specials by color—a yellow pepper bisque and a yellow watermelon salad, or a zucchini stuffed with green rice. The premise sounds a little gimmicky until you learn that for Meyer, these dishes represent a challenge. The chef is colorblind.
“A lot of people hear the word ‘colorblind’ and they think you’re walking in a black-and-white world,” he explains. “You see different shadings, but people don’t understand how smart the human mind is. When I look at the sky, I know it’s supposed to be blue because I learned that when I was two years old. When I see grass, I automatically think it’s green. My mind is conditioned so that anything that is similar to grass is also green. I don’t really see it as green, but my mind associates it that way. But if the grass is yellow or brown, I really can’t tell. To me, it’s still green. The problems come when there’s nothing I can correlate to. I have a hard time with clothes or cars—a car could be any color.”
The Michigan native studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island before returning to his home state and working at the award-winning Tribute restaurant in Farmington Hills and SaltWater and Bourbon Steak at MGM Grand Detroit, along with writing as a food columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Before taking the job as the Westside Barcelona’s executive chef a little over a year ago, Meyer acted as the chef at large for Barteca Restaurant Group, covering ground across Barcelona’s numerous locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia, and Washington, D.C.
As a chef, Meyer can usually get by using his other senses, but when it comes to reds, greens, and browns, Meyer has to rely on others. He can’t judge whether or not prime rib is done just by looking at it the color. The same goes for tuna, where the subtle variations between pink, red, and brown indicate freshness. Instead, he uses other methods for determining quality.
“I tease people and tell them my other senses, like my sense of smell, are better because I can’t see the colors correctly,” he jokes. “But a lot of it is really just talking to other people and experience. The more I cut something or the more I taste it, I can use my palate, my nose, my fingers, to know quality more than from just my eyes. I don’t trust my vision [alone] to be the constant judge. That’s the beauty of food—nature has made it so there are many different ways to tell if something is right or off. A bad piece of fish not only looks bad, but the eyes are sunken, the gills are brown. There’s a textual component and a smell.”
Always game for a good challenge, Meyer has recently begun crafting dishes themed to the colors he has difficulty differentiating, showing them off as the restaurant’s rotating chef’s specials. First, Meyer played with red and yellow, exploring variations of each shade through dishes such as risotto with bright yellow saffron.
For his green theme, Meyer served zucchini stuffed with Georgia chanterelles and arroz verde; and green eggs and ham with Serrano ham, spinach flan, and toast.
If you want to taste the rainbow yourself, Meyer is preparing to launch his next themed series on August 18, possibly exploring the absence of color with white or black. (Meyer hinted that squid ink will be in season soon.) 1085 Howell Mill Road, 404-872-8000