Chef Laura Martinez has been blind most of her life, but that didn't stop her from pursuing her dream of becoming a chef. Martinez is a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, worked for Charlie Trotter and now runs her own restaurant, La Diosa, in Chicago. On May 27, she hosts a blind-tasting seminar as part of the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience (www.nowfe.com). She spoke to Gambit about how working without sight heightens her sense of taste and smell, and how that influences her cooking.
How has being blind affected your career as a chef?
Martinez: As a child, I always wanted to be a surgeon and I would always play with a knife that I would steal from my mom. We had a big patio with trees and I would chop leaves up ... but maybe I had food in my blood because I always went into my mom's kitchen and would ask her questions and try to help her with cooking. I developed that skill as a child, without knowing I wanted to be a chef.
My friends encouraged me to become a chef because I always loved to cook. But when I got into the cooking school here in Chicago, they made a big deal about it. That made me more aggressive toward the idea. Instead of pushing me away, it brought me closer to what I wanted. I kept going and I got through it. It wasn't easy, but I made it.
It can be challenging, especially when you're decorating a cake or doing a sauce that has to look great. I worked closely with my instructor and my assistant. If you say the color green to me, I think of something that I've felt that is green for sure, like the grass or broccoli or something. I understand what you're saying to me, it's just in a different way.
How does being blind heighten other senses?
M: Since I can't see (the dish), my mind is working hard on the flavor. I focus a lot more on flavor. There are, of course, people who say, "Well, what about presentation?" Maybe I'm not so great at visual, but what I focus on is flavor. Once people taste the food they forget about the visual part and focus on the taste anyway. I want people to enjoy the food by tasting it and feeling it through the different textures and different flavors. I work with my husband, and when we create something I'll say, "OK, for me it tastes great, but describe it to me. Does it look appealing? Does it look colorful?" We work together pretty well in that aspect — I do the tasting part and he does the visual. When I plate [a dish], I want something nice but also something simple to enjoy. Food is for you to enjoy and to have fun, not just to look at it.
What are the most common things people mix up in the kitchen?
M: People mix up flour and powdered sugar a lot. Visually, it looks the same. If you feel it, you might sense something, but you really have to taste it.
People get confused with white and black pepper, something I use a lot of here. People often think it's red pepper or something else. Sometimes (my husband) will put salt instead of sugar into a shaker or something. I always tell my husband, "You need to taste it!"
At the (NOWFE) event, (the guests) are going to be blindfolded, and they will be tasting the food and getting wine pairings. So that will be different, for them to kind of put themselves into my world. It's kind of fun to play a little bit like that.