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Blind Woman Learning to be a Chef

Blind Woman Learning to be a Chef

Martinez, a blind chef in training, thinks of color in terms of food; when she thinks of red, she thinks apples.

Rex W. Huppke | 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.