Originally Posted Online: July 07, 2013, 9:27 pm
Last Updated: July 07, 2013, 11:02 pm

So skilled, so determined: Q-C native didn't let blindness hinder culinary greatness

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By John Marx, jmarx@qconline.com

Photo: Scott
Chef Bradley Scott and Chef Laura Martinez take a break from the meal Chef Martinez prepared this past weekend at her mother's Moline home.

MOLINE — The hands, so gifted, reach for the flat-iron steaks. Through touch and smell, chef Laura Martinez knows the precise moment the steaks must be turned.

Moments later, the 29-year-old Moline native deftly is slicing tomatoes. Using her left knuckle as a gauge, she wields a large knife -- she loves knives -- and skillfully slices two huge tomatoes.

They will be part of the salad for that evening's dinner. Chef Martinez, a graduate of Chicago's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, is preparing a seven-course meal for a few of her closest Quad-Cities' friends.

For the record, Chef Martinez, is blind. More important, she is a creative and skilled technician.

And she is in demand.

She's in the homestretch of securing her own eatery, "La Diosa'' in Lakeview, a Chicago suburb. The hope is to blend French, Italian and Asian cuisine at La Diosa, which is Spanish for "Goddess.''

Chef Martinez also is fresh from a successful three-year run at Chef Charlie Trotter's "Eponymous,'' in Chicago's Lincoln Park area.

"I was a toddler and staring into lights and running into everything in the house,'' Chef Martinez said of the first signs of vision trouble. "I had cancer of the eye (retinal blastoma), so this is all I know (darkness). But I have lived my life with passion, trying not to have boundaries, doing my best to be as independent as I can. I am stubborn, which might be my greatest asset.''

Her never-settle approach to life has worked.

"Never mind that she worked for the famous Trotter, just to get through Le Cordon Bleu is an amazing feat,'' Chef Bradley Scott said of Chef Martinez.

Chef Scott, who heads the culinary department at Scott Community College, was one of Martinez's dinner guests. Also on hand was Pam McDermott, Chef Martinez's one-on-one educational guide in her days at Moline High School.

Chef Scott awarded Chef Martinez the Moline City Pin, the equivalent to the key to the city. "The skills she has are amazing,'' he said. "She is an inspiration to so many.''

Post-high school, Chef Martinez thought she'd get a degree in psychology but decided it wasn't adventurous enough.

Then she decided to become a chef. Once she completed her coursework at Le Cordon Bleu, she gained national acclaim when the world famous Trotter hired her.

Chef Martinez said there still are challenges. She puts her cookware in certain spots, works by feel and identifies spices by smell. Her pace is deliberate, but fast enough to keep up in the hurried, perfection-is-must world of restaurant-prep.

"I am in trained in French cuisine and there is thoroughness to that side,'' Chef Martinez said. "But preparing any dish gives me a sense of satisfaction. You are alone in your work, but you are never alone in the kitchen. So many people are there to help.''

Married just a short time, Chef Martinez says husband Maurice is an enthusiastic supporter of her career.

"What a great guy he is,'' she said. "He is there at every step for me. He lets me fail if I need to fail, but he is the greatest supporter of what I am chasing, personally and professionally.''