Friday, June 4, 2010

Blindness Doesn't Keep This Chef Out of the Kitchen

By Dave Newhouse
Oakland Tribune columnist

A sense of taste, a passion for food, and an inherent capacity for creativity are starting points in the kitchen for any reputable chef.

So what does it matter if the chef can't see?

Laura Martinez, 25, has been totally blind since she was 1, the result of retina detachment glaucoma.

"It's like cancer of the eye," she said.

Blindness is no deterrent for Martinez. She has a natural inclination for cuisine that she hopes will vault her one day into the stratosphere of celebrated chefs.

"But in a different way," she said. "I don't want to copy any of their styles. I want to be different and unique."

Martinez, who lives in Chicago, is a graduate of that city's Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College. She's staying at the Oakland Marriott City Center this week, preparing for Saturday's benefit dinner at the California Culinary Academy, where she'll be cooking for the Oakland-based Blind Babies Foundation.

With Martinez is her mother, Josefina, and Laura's assistant, Rachel Colcyn, 25, who helped her through Le Cordon Bleu. Alicia Cavallo, director of sales and marketing at the Marriott City Center, set up this interview.

"I'm not a chef because I'm blind," Martinez said Wednesday. "I have the passion, patience, desire and energy to do it, and not because I can't see."

Born in Mexico, she moved with her family to Quad Cities, Ill., when she was 9. She first wanted to be a surgeon, then a butcher and a psychologist before embracing cooking, which encompasses her first three career paths.

"I started doing a lot of cooking because I moved out (of home) and I had to learn everything from scratch because my mom wasn't there," she said. "And I liked it. Friends tasted my food and said I should go for being a chef. It was a challenge for me, and I thought, 'Why not?' So I did it."

Though sightless, Martinez has never injured herself cooking. She hasn't cut a finger while slicing meat, fish or fruit. She hasn't burned her hand over a stove.

Still she was told a blind person can't be a chef.

"Finding trust, finding opportunity "... it wasn't easy," she said. "It was hard facing it, hard to get into it, convincing people to give me a chance."

She survived Le Cordon Bleu by "showing my confidence, and that I was serious. I wasn't just playing around like most of the students. They show up for a month or two and then they miss a lot."

For Laura, it was the sauce pan or nothing. Charlie Trotter was the first to believe in her. Trotter, a Chicago restaurateur, hired her four months ago.

"He tasted my food," she said, "and he told me, 'You're working for me. I didn't choose you because you were blind. I chose you because of your talent.' "

Now doing "stash" work, or prep cook, she's "impatient" to move ahead, to create new dishes, to own a restaurant in Miami.

How does she function in the kitchen? Her spices are labeled in Braille. She separates different meats or fish by feeling their texture or by using a keen sense of smell. She doesn't consider herself handicapped.

"If you have the desire and creativity, it doesn't matter," she said. "I know people who have everything, and they can't cook at all."

Read the rest of Chef Martinez' story here.

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