Malawian home cooks and local Head Chef Cephus teaching Penny authentic local cuisine CREDIT Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown
Malawian home cooks and local Head Chef Cephus teaching Penny authentic local cuisine (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).
Veterans

Baking Blind: The astonishing life of a blind veteran turned globe-trotting chef

Cdr (Retd) Penny Melville-Brown's life is nothing short of inspirational.

Malawian home cooks and local Head Chef Cephus teaching Penny authentic local cuisine CREDIT Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown
Malawian home cooks and local Head Chef Cephus teaching Penny authentic local cuisine (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

A Royal Navy veteran whose military career ended when she lost her sight has been speaking about how she travelled the world to cook with blind and sighted chefs to encourage others with disabilities to pursue their dreams.

Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown has now written a book about her epic trip, called 'A Cook's Tour: Baking Blind Goes Global', which is based on her experiences travelling the world and which documents the veteran's determination to interact with the world as an equal and not be dismissed as incapable of anything because of her sight loss.

She left the Royal Navy in 1999 after what she describes as a "fabulous career" during which she also became the first woman to hold the position of naval barrister.

She joined the Women's Royal Naval Service - which was disbanded and integrated into the Royal Navy in 1993 - as a graduate Direct Entry in 1977 following her post-grad year and did basic training at HMS Dauntless.

Four months later, Penny joined Britannia Royal Naval School (BRNC) Dartmouth and was commissioned as a Probationary Third Officer WRNS in April 1978.

As part of her role, Penny did a wide variety of things including NATO intelligence, home defence war planning, MOD public relations and legal training. In 1989 she made history by becoming the first WRNS Officer to be called to the Bar. 

Listen: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown speaks to Natasha Reneaux about her life (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

However, during her first legal job, Penny's eyesight started failing and she says, the steroids she was prescribed to treat her sight loss started to damage her liver and kidneys. She was left with a difficult, life-changing decision - losing her right eye or dying. 

Speaking with Natasha Reneaux, a BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, Penny said: "So obviously the eye went and [I] struggled back to work. 

"I was promoted to Commander, but my other eye was failing so in the end I was medically discharged because I knew that they weren't going to give me the promotion jobs I wanted." 

Since leaving the Royal Navy, Penny has completely lost her sight - unable to tell the difference between day and night - and has dedicated her life to helping disabled people into the workplace. She founded Disability Dynamics in 2000 which specialised in training, consultancy and supporting disabled people to become self-employed. Penny was awarded an OBE in 2009 and an Honorary Doctorate (Middlesex University of London) in 2018 for her services to disabled people. 

Tanya Holland of the Brown Sugar Kitchen Oakland, California, taught Penny the basics of her famous Creole cuisine CREDIT Commander Retired Penny Melville-Brown
Tanya Holland of the Brown Sugar Kitchen Oakland, California, taught Penny the basics of her famous Creole cuisine (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

The veteran wanted to play her part in changing the public's view of what a disabled person is capable of, saying: "I spent 20 years after leaving the Navy helping other disabled people get back to work and I decided I wanted to showcase disabled people in a different way because they're either thought of as sad, wretched people who sit at home, or they're Paralympians and actually we do lots more and we're much more competent." 

After many years of helping disabled people, Penny said the Department for Work and Pensions cut the support she needed to work so, in 2017, the self-described "unashamedly optimistic" veteran decided a new challenge was needed. 

She already had a passion for cooking, using kitchen aids like talking scales to help her assess how much ingredients she needs to add, so decided to use this skill to inspire others to see that they need not feel restricted by their disability. 

Indigenous bush tucker chef Fred teaching Penny about Australian bush food (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).
Indigenous bush tucker chef Fred teaching Penny about Australian bush food (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

Within months she had entered and won the Holman Prize – an annual award from the non-profit organization 'LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired' - which awards $25,000 each year to three blind people who want to help change perceptions of blindness around the world. 

Penny used her winnings to travel the world and cook with blind and sighted chefs. Many of the people she met on her travels were nervous about working with a blind cook, but her obvious talent and boundless enthusiasm dampened their fears. She said: "The book is the story of that adventure. And it was an adventure. 

"There was a hurricane, there was a near-drowning in Australia. Full Air-Sea rescue helicopters, the lot. 

"I was nearly killed in an accident in France, so it's quite an exciting story. 

"And of course, it's got recipes." 

Penny Melville-Brown in a coma after her accident in France CREDIT Penny Melville-Brown
Penny Melville-Brown in a coma after her accident in France (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

The near-death car accident in December 2017 in France broke the bones in Penny's neck and left her in a coma for five weeks with many months ahead in hospital and at home learning how to walk again. She returned to the UK undaunted and motivated to resume a life with meaning and fulfilment. 

When Penny had recovered, she continued her globetrotting escapade and discovered 100 new recipes the talented cooks she met in places like Costa Rica, Malawi, Australia, China and the United States were willing to share with the world and documented the whirlwind world tour in a video blog series, 'Baking Blind'. 

Of her travels to six continents, she has said: "From learning sweet-and-sour pork three ways to pounding cassava with a pole, adapting the classic Victoria sponge in Costa Rica and China, foraging in the Australian bush, learning the tips and tricks of professional chefs at the very top of their game. 

"But the cooking and recipes are outshone by the people I met. Their courage and generosity, their determination to succeed and face life with a smile. 

"There are recipes for everyone and, if this blind cook can do it, so can you." 

Penny stands with fellow blind cooks in Lilongwe, Malawi CREDIT Commander Retired Penny Melville-Brown
Penny stands with fellow blind cooks in Lilongwe, Malawi (Picture: Commander (Retired) Penny Melville-Brown).

Penny's book, 'A Cook's Tour: Baking Blind Goes Global', comes in both printed and Kindle versions which detail practical insights into living with disability and surviving a near-death experience. The Kindle version of the book contains clickable links to more than 50 demonstration videos. 

The book is available as a paperback and on Kindle via Amazon.

For more information visit www.pennymelvillebrown.com