Chef Wants Diners To Remember Her Cooking, Not Her Blindness

Aug 24, 2015
Originally published on August 24, 2015 7:17 pm

Many chefs dream of opening their own restaurant. But Laura Martinez faced an obstacle that many people thought would make that dream impossible to fulfill: The 31-year-old chef is blind.

It took two years for Martinez to open La Diosa, her tiny restaurant in Chicago, this past January. In addition to her white chef's jacket, Martinez wears dark sunglasses when she works.

The soft-spoken chef traces her passion for cooking to a few things. First, there were the knives: "I always loved knives. In fact, when I was a child, they were my favorite toy."

Later, in college, she didn't like the cafeteria food. "I was used to homemade meals from my mother and good food," she says, "so when I got this weird food, I didn't want to eat it. And I guess that when I started to focus on flavors and smells."

La Diosa means "the goddess" in Spanish. It is a modest space. Pictures and newspaper articles about Chef Martinez line one wall. There are five tables and some stools near a counter at the front window.

Despite its size, La Diosa is a full-service restaurant that's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Martinez says her menu is Mexican comfort food with a French touch. In addition to quiches, omelets, quesadillas and empanadas, there's also her own creation, tartizzas.

"I call it tartizza," she says, "because it's kind of between a tart and pizza, but the dough is delicate and light, but flaky at the same time."

Martinez's husband, Maurilio Ortega, works in the restaurant as well. They jokingly call him Sous Chef Maury. As Martinez rolls out the dough for the tartizza, he gets the other ingredients ready, including Martinez's special sauce.

Martinez lost her eyesight to cancer when she was a baby. In college, she pursued a degree in psychology — she knew there were blind psychologists. But when she later decided to go to culinary school, she looked for blind chefs, and couldn't find one.

"I said, 'Oh, my God,' " Martinez recounts, "this is going to be interesting, because I like challenges." It was, indeed, a challenge. She got help from an attorney to get into culinary school. During an internship, her supervisor was not supportive.

Martinez got a break, though, when the now late Charlie Trotter, one of Chicago's most acclaimed chefs, watched her work, tasted her food, and offered her a job.

Martinez worked at Trotter's restaurant until it closed in 2012. Then, with no prospects in sight, she decided it was time to work toward her dream of opening a restaurant.

A business adviser, Andrew Fogarty, was flabbergasted at first by the idea of a blind chef, but then he worked with Martinez to develop a business plan.

"Chef had the name the first day we met," says Fogarty. "She had the idea for her dream; she had the menu. All she needed to do was execute."

Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel says a restaurant kitchen is a hectic madhouse, even for the sighted.

"It's kind of incredible," he says, that Martinez is running La Diosa.

Vettel says there's intense competition in Chicago's restaurant industry but that Martinez's former association with Trotter is tremendously helpful. "The food community and customers are very aware of names and reputations. It's an immediate statement of legitimacy," Vettel says.

Martinez says she knows that business is a gamble. Even so, she's already been an inspiration to others.

Another blind chef who won first place on a television cooking show sent out a message on Twitter telling Martinez so.

In the restaurant, after using her talking cash register to ring up a customer, Martinez says she has another wish. "Now that I'm known for being the blind chef," she says, "I want people to look beyond that." What she really wants people eating in La Diosa to remember, she says, is the food.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to meet a young chef in Chicago now who defied expectations to achieve her dream of opening a restaurant. It took her two years as she navigated an industry that's not used to people like her. NPR's Cheryl Corley explains this chef's unique situation.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: So Chef Laura Martinez says there's a couple of reasons why she wanted to start a restaurant. First, in college, she didn't like the cafeteria food. And then there was this...

LAURA MARTINEZ: I always loved knives, too, so that was kind of, like, part of the reason.

CORLEY: In fact, Martinez says knives were her favorite toy - maybe not so odd for a girl who becomes a chef. Now Martinez is a soft-spoken 31-year-old. She's also blind, losing her sight as an infant. So in addition to her white chef coat, she wears dark sunglasses as she gathers utensils and starts rolling out dough for a dish she calls a tartizza.

MARTINEZ: It's kind of, like, between a tart and a pizza, but the dough is delicate and light but flaky at the same time.

CORLEY: La Diosa, the name of the restaurant, is Spanish for the goddess. It's a modest space - five tables, some stools near a counter at the front window. Despite its size, it's full service. Martinez's husband works at La Diosa, too, and Martinez also does some catering. One customer, Ronit Rose (ph), has come back to drop off the pans that came with the food she ordered for a dinner party.

RONIT ROSE: I asked them if they could make quiches and lasagna for me. It was great.

CORLEY: Chef Martinez studied psychology in school - hard, yes, but she says she knew there were blind psychologists. When she decided to go to culinary school, she looked for blind chefs, but couldn't find one.

MARTINEZ: So I was like, oh, my God. This is going to be interesting because I like challenges.

CORLEY: And challenge it was. She needed help from an attorney to get into a culinary school. During an internship, she says her supervisor was not supportive, but her break came when the now late Charlie Trotter, one of Chicago's most acclaimed chefs, watched her work, tasted her food and offered her a job.

MARTINEZ: I was like, oh, my God. I'm - finally I'm starting to feel peace.

CORLEY: She worked at Trotter's restaurant until it closed in 2012, and with no prospects in sight, decided it was time to work toward her dream of opening a restaurant. A business adviser, Andrew Fogarty, was flabbergasted at first by the idea of a blind chef, but then worked with Martinez to develop a business plan.

ANDREW FOGARTY: Chef had the name the first day we met. She had the idea for her dream. She had the menu. All she needed was to execute.

PHIL VETTEL: It's kind of incredible.

CORLEY: Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel says a restaurant kitchen a hectic madhouse for even the sighted. Another obstacle, he says, is the intense competition in the city's restaurant industry. But Vettel says Martinez's association with the late Charlie Trotter is a plus.

VETTEL: Oh, it's tremendously helpful. The food community and customers are very aware of names and reputations. It's an immediate statement of legitimacy.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Two, zero, zero, four, four, one, four.

CORLEY: In the restaurant, after ringing up a customer with her talking cash register, Chef Laura Martinez says she has another wish.

MARTINEZ: Now that I'm known for, you know, being the blind chef, now I want people to look beyond that.

CORLEY: And focus on the food, she says, because that's what she wants people in her restaurant to remember the most. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.