Chef Wants Diners To Remember Her Cooking, Not Her Blindness
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.