BRADENTON — If she doesn't know what it is, she sniffs it.
Or feels it.
Or tastes it. Culinary arts student Gabrielle Lozano is blind, so she cooks with her other senses.
This summer, the 20-year-old is slated to graduate from Manatee Technical Institute in Bradenton and enter the work force — as a chef.
"People ask me all the time, 'How is it possible that she cooks?' " said her mother Pam Lozano. "They ask, 'Does she have some sight?' I tell them no. She is completely blind, reads Braille and uses a cane to get around."
Her daughter was born with little sight and, at age 3, lost all of it from a brain tumor on her optic nerve.
"Since she's been about 8 or 9, she started helping me with dinner and just loved it," her mother said.
And Gabrielle Lozano, who graduated from Manatee High School in 2008 in the top 10 percent of her class with a 4.0 grade point average, claims she was much younger when she got hooked.
"It started when I was little," said Lozano, who lives in Parrish with her mom, dad Joe and younger brother Marc. "I was around my grandmother and great-grandmother when they were cooking."
When she wasn't in the kitchen with them, she was sitting near a television listening to the Food Network.
After that, she started making her own recipes.
Her personal favorite?
"I make a good banana fritter with pie dough, bananas and chocolate chips," she said. "I bake it and sprinkle powdered sugar on it."
She also likes making soup and apple pie.
Finding a school that would take a blind student who aspired to be a cook was a challenge.
When her mother began searching for a culinary arts program, no one would return her phone calls.
"They thought it was like a joke, 'Hi, my daughter is blind and wants to learn how to cook,' " her mother said.
Then she called Manatee Technical Institute.
Chef instructor Garry Colpitts agreed to meet with her daughter.
"I was skeptical, but I have an open mind — and you know what? She was very determined and she convinced us," Colpitts said. "Gabby's just inspiring."
This past year, she's been learning from chef instructor Bert Spagnola at the school's east campus.
Lozano doesn't need any assistance while in the kitchen.
Especially at school.
"I do it all on my own," Lozano said. "The other students tease me here because sometimes I know where things are and the other kids don't. They say, 'I can't find this, I can't find that' and the others say, 'Go ask Gabby.' "
When it comes to seasoning, she generally uses her sense of smell.
Some nonscented similar-textured items are labeled in Braille.
"Sometimes if I shake a jar, like peppercorn, I can tell by the size of it what it is," she said.
If she still can't figure what something is, she tastes it.
Her class work — knife skills included — is impeccable.
"Out of all the students, very few escape getting cut," Spagnola said. "I've never seen her cut herself."
Her class this spring is slated to participate in a vocational program competition called SkillsUSA in Kansas City.
One part of the competition includes creating a restaurant.
"She drew up her own blueprints for the kitchen. They were good," Spagnola said.
A part of her work study for the culinary arts program is cooking breakfast and lunch at the school.
"She is beyond awesome. People have seen her in the cafeteria and have no idea that she is blind," said school director Mary Cantrell.
Lozano hopes her accomplishments help others pursue similar dreams.
"Maybe it will inspire other visually impaired kids to do the same," Lozano said.
After she graduates, Lozano wants to work in a small cafe or restaurant, and eventually open a sandwich and bake shop.