Sleepless in Atlanta
Chef Claudia Martinez devotes herself to her food and her city
Words by Nicole Letts
Claudia Martinez has already accomplished more than many of her peers. She has worked at illustrious Atlanta restaurants such as Restaurant Eugene, Atlas, and Umi. She has competed, and finished in second place, on Food Network's “Chopped.” She has earned a spot as a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist as an outstanding pastry chef. And she’s not yet 30 years old.
Claudia helms the pastry programs at the Hotel Clermont’s Tiny Lou's and at Atlanta’s Westside eatery, O-Ku Sushi. Beyond being in charge of pastry at each restaurant, Claudia has also taken it upon herself to be a restaurant industry advocate amid COVID-19. Since the pandemic forced closures in the spring of 2020, Claudia has worked overtime and on weekends to personally prepare (and deliver to Atlanta residents) some of her top-selling Tiny Lou's pastries, including her Ruby chocolate chip cookies. Despite the long hours, Claudia didn’t bank any of the proceeds herself; instead, all earnings went into a separate fund for her restaurant staff to help them during layoffs.
In late summer, Claudia opened yet another concept within the walls of Hotel Clermont: Cafe Claudia, a weekend pop-up featuring a menu bursting with breakfast favorites, such as cheddar and chive buttermilk biscuits, tomato basil quiche, and melt-in-your-mouth cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing. When does she sleep? As you’ll see below, rarely.
When did you start your career? I feel like you've done so much for someone who's so young. You're so accomplished!
I went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, and I thought I wanted to be a savory chef or own my own restaurant. After I graduated, I moved back to Atlanta, and I worked at [Restaurant] Eugene. I ended up on the pastry station a little bit more because they were short-staffed. I wanted to learn more, so I reached out to David Vidal, a renowned pastry chef that I was following on Instagram, and I packed up and went to Sweden for a month to work with him. It intrigued me that somebody like David, who does savory so well, was also really good at pastry.
How did your time in Sweden influence your work?
I ended up falling in love with that part of the culinary world. Overseas, they have more room for creativity. They have more ingredients, and the guest clientele is more open to trying new things. There, it didn’t have to be a slice of cake or a pie or something so sweet and heavy. It's OK to mix savory with desserts, and it's OK for some desserts to be lighter or have more nutritional value to them.
I find that your desserts tend to be more playful and often include some sort of savory element. Is that something you try to include, or do you think it just happens naturally based on your background?
I think I try to include that. The pastry chef at Eugene at the time was Aaron Russell, who has gotten several James Beard nominations. He was creating dishes like celery ganache with strawberry sorbet, and he was playing with savory elements. That made me feel more confident because I could use what I learned savory wise and apply it to pastries. Now I introduce flavors that people aren't used to seeing in a dessert, such as foie gras, which pairs so well with milk chocolate or tropical flavors. I would also say the majority of my menu has some type of fruit component because I like working lighter flavors as well.
Why do you think you gravitate toward fruit over, say, caramel and chocolate?
I think it might be my family background and growing up around tropical fruits. I’m Venezuelan, and we use a lot of fruit in our desserts naturally. I think fruit itself already has flavor, so I don't really need to manipulate it. I can let it stand out. I think one of my critiques with other dessert menus is that if you have this amazing meal, and you have six courses of savory food which starts light and gets heavier. At the end of a meal, it's almost harder to give somebody a whole bunch of sugar or cream. I love ending with something lighter and fruit-forward. It’s cleansing for the palette.
What do you remember about cooking growing up? Are there other parts of your heritage that go into your food?
In our family and in our culture, you're brought up trying different foods because whatever you're given, you have to be thankful for it and eat it. Because of that, I didn't grow up a picky eater. I eat everything, and my parents both cooked a lot. I remember, my grandmother—my dad’s mom—never throwing away food. So, one time she came over and there was nothing in our pantry except for lime salad dressing and pasta. She cooked the pasta and served it with the dressing in it. It was probably one of the nastiest things I ever had. But, it just showed that she worked with whatever she had in the kitchen.
You advocate for restaurant staff, and when the pandemic first started, you really made it a huge part of your time, including off-hours, to help your fellow restaurant industry friends. Profits went right to the industry workers who were going through layoffs. You delivered the most delicious ruby chocolate cookies (which were heavenly) to my house at 9:30 p.m. one cold night. How has your mission grown since it first started back in March? Where you are with your efforts today?
The restaurant industry is made up of so many different types of people, and it’s the most welcoming community because the restaurant industry will take anybody. It doesn't matter if you went to school or where you're from. I just kept thinking about our staff because that's basically our family. I felt like there wasn’t anything I could really do to help. I can keep signing these petitions and hope the government helps, or I can do something myself. Instead of waiting to have a meeting about it, I just made a quick reaction. I can't sit at home; I'm a workaholic. I love what I do, and I'm used to running around. I wanted to do whatever it took for people to give the little money they can to our staff because I didn’t want to let them down.
Tell me about Café Claudia. Is it here to stay beyond the pandemic? What's the plan?
I wanted the café to be somewhere that I can continue to work on the baked goods and get better at it—test more things. I also want it to support mostly minorities, and I want it to be mostly women, if possible, to give them that platform. We partnered with Dope Coffee, a Black-owned coffee company that doesn’t have its own storefront (yet) and some other small businesses. The hotel management company actually asked me if I wanted to make a commission off of the cafe, but I don't. I want to support other chefs and hospitality workers. Anybody that's lost their jobs. It’s very up in the air, but I think it's going to still be here after the pandemic. I'm just going to keep doing it, working from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. and volunteering the rest of the time, I guess until I run out of energy. And that’s OK with me.
What do you hope your impact is on Atlanta and the Atlanta food scene?
I want to come off as somebody who's making good desserts with great presentation but is not pretentious. I also want to break that stereotype of pastry chefs having the “easy” job because it seems like it's not as stressful as working the line. I was always put on pastry because I don't look like a chef. I'm five foot and a small girl. I want to show that you can become any type of chef you want. It just takes hard work. It doesn't matter where you went to school, and it doesn't matter if you have money. It's really just about making good food and experiences.