The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Blind Chef Laura Martinez Readies Herself for New Role as Restaurant Owner

By Janet Rausa Fuller | October 30, 2014 5:18am
 Laura Martinez, a blind chef and Charlie Trotter protege, is preparing to open a casual, counter-service restaurant called La Diosa in Lincoln Park.
Blind Chef Laura Martinez to Open La Diosa
View Full Caption

LINCOLN PARK — Chef Laura Martinez, who is blind, made headlines when she was hired by the late Charlie Trotter fresh out of culinary school in 2010.

For two years, she worked in the kitchen at his world-renowned Lincoln Park restaurant, doing whatever was needed — bread station, garde manger, hot line — for the notoriously demanding chef.

When Trotter's restaurant closed in 2012, Martinez was out of a job and short on job leads, but not nearly out of hope.

She had long dreamed of owning a restaurant. What young chef doesn't?

"I said, 'I can't just sit at home and feel sorry for myself,'" she said. "I thought, maybe this is the right time."

 Chef Laura Martinez (r.) with her mom, Josephina, who will help cook at Martinez's counter-service Lincoln Park restaurant, La Diosa.
Chef Laura Martinez (r.) with her mom, Josephina, who will help cook at Martinez's counter-service Lincoln Park restaurant, La Diosa.
View Full Caption
DNAInfo/Janet Rausa Fuller

In November, after a two-year process guided by an adviser she calls "my hero," Martinez, 30, will open La Diosa at 2308 N. Clark St., a mile from her Lakeview home.

Janet Fuller says Martinez uses her heightened smell and taste senses to compensate:

La Diosa will be open all day, serving mostly comfort food with Mexican and French touches. Burritos and quiche during the day, meatloaf and mashed potatoes for dinner and sweets for whenever — flan, tres leches cake, mocha-whiskey cheesecake and "impossible cake," so named for its seemingly impossible construction of chocolate cake on the bottom and flan on top.

The modest space, about 450 square feet, offers just enough room for six or so cafe tables, a row of stools in the front window and a counter behind which Martinez, her husband and her mom will cook using an electric stove and small appliances. There is no gas hookup.

This is not the upscale destination of her dreams.

But, said her adviser Andrew Fogaty, "I don't think this is the culmination. I think this is the beginning. I think she's going to use this small start as a vehicle to build capital."

Starting from scratch

Martinez had a clear vision but little capital when she called Fogaty in October of 2012.

She typed "assisting people with small business from scratch" into Google. Down the search engine rabbit hole she went, eventually landing on Fogaty, who at the time was director of a Small Business Development Center. Such state-funded centers offer free consulting and training services to entrepreneurs and small-business owners.

She sounded "a little ticked off" on the phone, Fogaty said. He also remembers her coming to his West Side office by herself for the first meeting.

"I was impressed by her determination, because clearly I wasn't the first person she had talked to," he said.

Martinez, who speaks quietly in short, assured sentences, was thinking big: a Trotter-level restaurant. Fogaty was straight with her.

There's no way, he told her. You have to start small, he said. They began to draft a business plan while Fogaty researched grants.

They eventually secured two state grants and a microloan from Accion totaling about $40,000. They found the storefront. They got permits. That's the short version of what has been an exhaustive, bureaucratic journey.

"There are a lot of obstacles, mainly because the world is not set up for someone who can't see. This morning, I was still going back and forth with the Department of Rehabilitation Services," Fogaty said Monday.

The even shorter version: "[Fogaty] believed in me," Martinez said.

Becoming a chef

Martinez was a baby when doctors found cancer in her eyes. They removed one eye when she was a year old.

Her food memories from childhood are clear as day — the smell of peppers roasting for her mother Josephina's mole, the feel of the dough as she helped her mom and grandma press fresh tortillas.

"They were a little nervous of me getting near the stove, but they let me use the knife," she said. "My mom gave me an adult knife. I played with it. It was basically my best friend, my toy. I pretended I was a surgeon."

At 24, Martinez quit taking psychology classes and left her hometown of Moline, Ill., for Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago.

She did her required internship at the Chicago Lighthouse, a social service agency for the blind and visually impaired, which led to a string of publicity: a profile in the Chicago Tribune, a story on the CBS Evening News, and then a job offer from Trotter, who'd accompanied the CBS camera crew to meet Martinez.

At Trotter's, Martinez said she worked with an assistant by her side for just a few weeks, "basically until I memorized the kitchen and my surroundings."

Trotter "didn't look at my vision problem. He looked beyond it," she said. "That's something I can never forget."

At La Diosa, Martinez will offer fried chicken and potato gratin as a tribute to Trotter, who died of a stroke last year. That's what she cooked that day in the Lighthouse kitchen, deboning the chicken — all under his watchful eye and the glare of the camera.

Building La Diosa

A few months ago, Fogaty took a new position as business development director at the Alliance for Illinois Manufacturing. Still invested in Martinez's project, he asked his new bosses to let him see it through; they said "yes."

"It was a personal challenge, but then, of course, after working with chef for so long, she's become my friend. I want her to succeed. And I think she's unique.

"I don't think there's another blind restaurateur who's opened their own restaurant in the country," he said. "I think it's a feather in the cap of Illinois and Chicago to have her."

When they went looking for a storefront, Fogaty would describe the layout to her and how much work he thought it needed. Martinez would walk through the room, feeling her way from end to end.

The space they settled on had been a cafe, which eased the licensing process a bit. It is decorated in warm tones of brown, orange and green — chocolate, yam and avocado. Martinez worked with a designer on the look.

"I said I want something that invites people to come in and feel comfortable and also to make them hungry," she said.

Prices will be reasonable for the young customers she expects to get from Francis W. Parker School just down the street, she said.

Her husband, Maurilio, plans to leave his job as a manager at a housewares product company and join her at La Diosa once all is up and running, which she said should happen in two to three weeks. She is waiting on some equipment, furniture and signage.

La Diosa is Spanish for "the goddess."

"I believe in prosperity and, of course, in God," Martinez said.

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: