Monday, December 28, 2009

Blind woman in Chicago trains to be chef

From the Chicago Tribune:

A kitchen is a spiritual place for Laura Martinez, a space that arouses her senses, excites her imagination. It's not where she imagined herself finding such satisfaction. When she was too young to understand that she was blind, she dreamed of being a surgeon. She grew up and out of such fantasies and studied briefly to be a psychologist.

But the kitchen beckoned. It lured her away from her family in Moline, Ill., to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary program at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.

"I'd never worked with a blind student before," said Karine Bravais-Slyman, who heads the institute's general education department, "but Laura did incredibly well in the kitchen. She showed many students that even with this type of impairment, she could still do better than students who have their sight."

Martinez had been cooking for years, either with her mother in the kitchen at home, making traditional Mexican dishes, or on her own. Now she was learning to cook wholly from scratch, deboning chickens and preparing delicate French sauces and creams.

"I had to learn to feel the food or to smell or listen to the sound it made in the pan," said Martinez, 25. "I can tell by feel whether meat is raw, medium or well done. You just learn through time."

Persistence has never been a problem for her. As an infant, Martinez had eye cancer and soon had lost one eye and all ability to see. She has no memory of seeing.

Her mother refused to treat her differently from her three brothers and two sisters. For a long time growing up, Martinez didn't understand she was different from anyone else.

"I thought everyone saw the way I did," she said.

She vividly recalls how she and her brother would sometimes sneak out one of their mother's kitchen knives and go in the backyard to carefully dissect leaves. That's where the idea to be a surgeon was born: "I eventually realized that being a chef would be a little like being a surgeon. At least I'd be able to use my knives."

To complete the Le Cordon Bleu program, Martinez is working daily in the cafeteria kitchen at the Chicago Lighthouse, a center for people who are blind or visually impaired. On a recent morning she stood over a broad yellow cutting board, deftly slicing chicken breasts with a razor-sharp, 8-inch knife.

The image of a blind person slicing meat is ripe for mockery, but Martinez made the act a delicate ballet of moving fingers and firm, precise cuts. She sees the meat with her hands, positions it just right for cutting, brings the strips around again so they can be cubed, constantly grasping and feeling around the edges to monitor her work.

Her eyes behind thick sunglasses, she stands straight and stoic, in a world of her own: "I concentrate. I pay attention. I imagine the flavor, the smell, the texture and the color. I always have a picture in my head of what I'm making."

"She has a sense of colors that is not visual; she associates colors in terms of food items," said Bravais-Slyman. "For greens, she thinks about salad; for reds, she thinks about strawberries or apples. Everything for her relates to food."

Martinez will graduate from her program in March, and faces an uncertain future. She knows, and Bravais-Slyman and others agree, it will be difficult for her to find restaurants willing to take on a blind chef. Job counselors at the Lighthouse for the Blind have said they will assist in her search, and Martinez acknowledged she likely will have to start somewhere small and work relentlessly to prove herself.

But that has been the case much of her life.

"I worry about it," she said, "but I still fight. I don't give up."

That's why she has already begun formulating a menu for the restaurant she plans to open someday in Miami. It will feature a mix of Mexican and Italian dishes, inspired by her mother's cooking as well as the myriad flavors and spices that ignite Martinez's senses.

She will call it La Diosa, which means "the goddess."

"Everybody has a god, no matter their religion," Martinez said. "I think positive and pray for good things to happen."

And whether through faith or persistence, Martinez believes that good things, indeed, will come.