LINCOLN PARK — Chef Laura Martinez had decided on the name of her restaurant years ago, before finishing culinary school, before a stint at Charlie Trotter's that put her in the spotlight, before she discovered how difficult it was for a blind person to do the seemingly impossible and open a restaurant.
The Lakeview resident always knew she would call her restaurant La Diosa, Spanish for "the goddess."
Two years ago, with the aid of a business adviser she cold-called after a Google search, she started working in earnest toward opening that restaurant.
And on Friday, Martinez, 30, did it — unlocked the door of La Diosa, 2308 N. Clark St., wearing a white chef coat embroidered with the name she'd chosen before it was a sure thing, nervous, she admitted, but smiling nonetheless.
Janet Fuller says Martinez uses heightened smell and taste senses to compensate:
It was technically a soft opening for a small crowd of media and friends. They gathered in the cozy, 450-square-foot cafe, sipping hot chocolate and tea and nibbling on guacamole and chips and wedges of ham and Cheddar quiche and mocha-Kahlua cheesecake.
La Diosa opens to the public at 11 a.m. Friday. Martinez describes her menu as Mexican comfort food with French touches.
Blind since infancy, she knows the restaurant intimately by touch. Last week, she moved easily around the main counter, past the talking cash register and still-empty pastry case, as visitors greeted her with hugs. Her two employees behind the counter — her husband Maurilio and her mom Josephina — wore matching chef coats.
"She absolutely nailed this. It's been two years of ups and downs. This is really, really an exciting moment," said Andrew Fogaty, the small business development expert who helped Martinez secure loans from the state and from small business lender Accion that were instrumental in launching the restaurant.
Standing next to Fogaty was Jennie Motto, a senior loan officer at Accion who referred to Fogaty as Martinez's "champion" and who, like most of the people in the brightly painted cafe, has followed the chef's progress closely.
Martinez moved to Chicago from Moline, Ill., to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts after connecting with the state's Department of Rehabilitation Services. The agency covered her tuition, fees and other expenses and helped place her in an internship at the Chicago Lighthouse, which led to a job at the late chef Charlie Trotter's acclaimed Lincoln Park restaurant.
Juan Ortiz, a department vocational rehabilitation counselor who has worked closely with Martinez since she was a culinary student, was at Friday's opening. He said that while he has had many gratifying experiences with his agency's clients, Martinez's case "is the icing on the cake."
The agency is covering the first five months' rent for Martinez and will continue to monitor and assist her with any business needs for the next nine months, Ortiz said.
According to Fogaty, Martinez is the first blind chef in the United States to open a restaurant. She might not be the last. Houston chef Christine Ha, the first blind chef to compete and win on Fox's "MasterChef," posted a link on Twitter to an October DNAinfo.com story about Martinez.
"If this blind chef can open her own restaurant, I can too some day," Ha tweeted.
La Diosa will be open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. It will be closed on Mondays.
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