Miller Union’s Pastry Chef is Redefining Hospitality
Claudia Martinez cares about far more than pastries.
Some chefs live and die by what they do in the kitchen, but she knows that there’s more to life than crafting the perfect dessert.
Though let’s be clear…she’s no culinary slouch.
She’s worked at several of Atlanta’s finest restaurants: the dearly departed farm-to-table Restaurant Eugene, the chic and classy Atlas Restaurant, the sexy French brasserie Tiny Lou’s, and of course, the authentically fresh Miller Union.
She’s also been nominated twice for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef: as a semifinalist in 2020 and a finalist in 2022.
But this is just where her story starts. Let’s learn more about Claudia Martinez, her culinary journey around Atlanta and beyond, and how it has led her to become a leading fighter for Atlanta’s service industry.
Claudia Gets Her Start
Claudia grew up in Georgia with two pastors as parents (her dad is now a Professor of Religion at Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA) and cooking was a constant part of her life. She went to Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she studied Culinary Arts and Food Service Management.
After this, she interned around Charlotte and New York City before returning to Atlanta and working at the now-closed Restaurant Eugene under James Beard Award-winning chef Linton Hopkins. She had worked all around the kitchen and even front-of-house, but remained unsure about where she wanted to focus her energies. Then she hopped on a plane to Sweden.
Discovering The Need to Knead
Nothing clears the head and focuses the heart like going abroad, and Claudia’s month in Sweden helped her do exactly that. She remembers, “I went to Sweden for a month to work under David Vidal, a pastry chef who I admired online.” She worked, or perhaps “volunteered” is the proper term, because it was unpaid, though it served the immensely useful purpose of allowing her to recalibrate.
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She continues, “And then I ended up falling in love with desserts and how he looks at it with a more relaxed approach.”
Claudia’s initial relationship with pastries certainly didn’t get off to a charmed start. “Growing up I wasn’t good at baking and didn’t actually eat a lot of sweets,” she says. “In culinary school I actually got a C in Baking and Pastry! But when I took advanced pastry, I got an A. So it was confusing how I wasn’t good at the basics, but I was able to concentrate more on the more advanced and technical side.”
If cooking is viewed as an art, then baking is a science. Once you venture into the pastry side of things, it becomes more like quantum physics, forcing one to factor in: ratio of dry to wet ingredients, the Goldilocks “just right” level of kneading a dough, arcane elements of humidity and room temperature, and…oh yeah…tasting good.
Above all else, her tutelage under Chef Vidal showed her that baking is more of an art than she had ever expected.
“He taught me that everything doesn’t have to be so detailed,” she begins. “You can bake like you cook and have fun with it, and I think that’s when you get better results.”
With an enlightened mindset like this, it’s easy to see why she grew so passionate about pastries. She recalls, “I learned to love desserts because it doesn’t have to just be this one thing – slice of cake or piece of pie – that we can have fun with it and add savory elements, or not make it so sweet.”
After her month in Sweden, she returned to Atlanta and landed her first pastry chef job at Tiny Lou’s in the famous Hotel Clermont (perhaps better known for its infamous strip club, the Clermont Lounge).
The city was soon going to learn Chef Claudia Martinez’s name.
Taking Atlanta By Storm
Claudia caught Atlanta’s attention with her first iconic pastry, the Ode to Blondie. Patrons of the Clermont Lounge will recognize the tribute to Blondie, the legendary dancer with a knack for crushing beer cans (and let’s just say she doesn’t do it with her hands or feet).
“It was fun being there because you could play around with desserts,” she says. “Because we were above a strip club, we could push the limit on the menu.” So she decided to pay homage to the Atlanta icon Blondie with the blondie dessert, with her signature savory twist.
The Ode to Blondie is a brown butter blondie with curried bananas flambé, candied hazelnuts, buttermilk ice cream, and hazelnut crémeux. In addition to helping establish Claudia’s bona fides in the Atlanta culinary scene, this dessert proved emblematic of what became her pastry modus operandi: a simple foundational pastry with a heavy fruit presence, savory notes, and picture-perfect plating.
This would not be the last iconic Atlanta restaurant that would recruit Claudia to do her thing, one dessert at a time.
Making the Move to Miller Union
One of Claudia’s mentors, Aaron Russell (one of the pastry chefs at Restaurant Eugene as well as the current owner and operator of Poor Hendrix), told her that Miller Union’s pastry chef was leaving and she should reach out. She explains, “I’ve always wanted to work in two restaurants in Atlanta, and that was Bacchanalia or Miller Union.”
She ended up going in, doing a tasting, and getting the job. While the restaurant is indeed esteemed and would be a huge career boost, that wasn’t what excited her during her interview. “I knew I wanted the job when I talked to [founders] Steven [Satterfield] and Neal [McCarthy] because they weren’t acting like it was an interview,” she remembers. “They were talking to me like I was a person.” The conversation touched much more on what they all care about and ways they could give back to the community. “I wanna work for people like that.”
I asked Claudia what excites her the most about her work at Miller Union and she answered, “the fact that they focus on seasonality and local farms. I think it’s fun when we get new things in; every week it’s a new fruit or vegetable and I’m learning how to work with them.” She continues, “I think I change the menu too much because I do have that flexibility where I can play around and get to be more hands-on.”
And just how much is she changing that menu?
“Once every week or two,” she says with a laugh.
Each week, when Claudia walks into the restaurant, she checks the trusty chalkboard which lists everything coming in from the local farms from which they source ingredients. She makes it a point that all of her desserts include at least one of those chalkboard items. This is instinctive for her because she’s “always been super fruit-forward, no matter what.”
She elaborates on her pastry style, “I don’t like desserts that are too sweet or heavy. And I think fruit, especially if it’s from a local farm, already has so much natural flavor and I want to highlight that.”
Shortly after Claudia and I spoke via Zoom, I visited her in the Miller Union kitchen to witness an artisan in her domain and, of course, to try some of her handiwork myself.
Tasting Claudia’s Pastries
As soon as I arrived at Miller Union, Claudia offered me a Cheddar and Chive Buttermilk Biscuit, hot out of the oven. Talk about a warm welcome!
I’ve always believed that biscuits have a high floor and a low ceiling, meaning their baseline is typically pretty solid but they don’t often wow me. Then I took a bite of Claudia’s biscuit.
As much as I hate to admit it, I love the Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits like the trashy American I am. But once I tried this, I quickly remembered that Miller Union and Red Lobster (or any of its fast-casual siblings) exist on completely different planets. It was a symphony of flavors and textures: salty and buttery, fluffy and flaky.
And just like at Red Lobster, this was only the first course. She was about to plate two desserts beyond the realm of any I’d seen before. You know when you go to a nice restaurant and order a cocktail without fully comprehending all the ingredients in it (how do you even pronounce guignolet)? I definitely encountered this with certain components of these desserts, but sometimes you just need to be bold and take a bite.
In conversation, Claudia is cool and relaxed, but in the kitchen, she operates like a jazz drummer, limbs moving in a flurry of action but remaining fixed to the beat.
The first dessert I tried was an Araguani Chocolate Ganache Cake with passion fruit, cardamom, and toasted coconut. This was an absolute blast of rich chocolate flavor, along with an equal share of fruitiness from the passion fruit. This evoked eating a box of chocolates and finding yourself pleasantly surprised, even blown away, by a certain selection. This whole dessert is that one top-notch chocolate.
The other dessert was a Blood Orange Mousse with a walnut crumb, white chocolate namelaka (a super creamy mousse), and fennel ice cream. This one got a double take out of me after my first bite. And my second. The walnut crumb brought a killer savory aspect to the mix, the blood orange mousse itself was light and airy with a balanced tartness, and the crunchy little orbs brought a stunning textural contrast to the party. There was also an edible flower on top (Claudia commented, “these are apparently a dollar each”).
Some cooks paint in two dimensions. Particularly impressive chefs sculpt in three dimensions. Claudia Martinez makes dessert in a realm I can’t fully describe. Not only is her work a visual spectacle, but it somehow tastes even better than it looks. Many pastry chefs go for the wow factor, but few are able to meet those expectations once you dive in.
Claudia more than sticks the landing.
James Beard Award Nominations
No chefs get into the food industry for the glamor, but it doesn’t hurt to be acknowledged.
Claudia has been nominated for two James Beard Awards for Outstanding Pastry Chef: once in 2020 and again in 2022.
“The first time I didn’t even think I qualified because I wasn’t a pastry chef for that long,” she began. “I didn’t really know how it worked, but I’m super thankful that it happened.”
She was thrilled to be named a semifinalist in 2020, but two years later, she made it a round further and was invited to the award ceremony in Chicago for the finalists. She was ecstatic at the opportunity to bring her family as well as a few members of her Miller Union team. While she didn’t end up winning, she was hardly disappointed at the result: “It’s not something I think about every day, but it felt good to be recognized for what I was doing.”
Amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Claudia found a way to marry her two passions: philanthropy and baking.
“[Cafe Claudia] started off as a pop-up during COVID,” she explained. Her coworkers at Tiny Lou’s were dealing with delays on their unemployment aid being delivered after being furloughed due to the restaurant closing. “People weren’t making money. So we were able to give everybody a hundred bucks just to get groceries and make it through the month.” The project quickly took off. She elaborates, “I wanted to support pop-up chefs who don’t have a venue to share their product without being charged 40% of their sales or something ridiculous.”
Even after she left Tiny Lou’s, Cafe Claudia lived on. “I just started working with different chefs and donating to different causes that I care about.”
She soon launched another program with the intent of benefiting others.
Desserts and Drinks
This idea originated from the owners of Miller Union, but has been a realization of Claudia’s vision of the power of dessert. She shares, “I wanted to create something where people can come in and do a tasting of different desserts that are paired with cocktails or wine.” Thus the aptly-named Desserts and Drinks was born.
After several successful iterations, she suggested making the next one a benefit for Luis Sanchez, a Miller Union team member for a decade who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. While the restaurant does offer health insurance to full-time employees, nobody should embark on this battle alone. “He is family to all of us,” Claudia says. “So what if we did it when we’re closed [on Sundays], get a bunch of volunteers, and donate all that money back to Luis?”
At the time we spoke in late January, the event was a few days away but had already sold out. If you are in a position to support Luis as he battles cancer, you can donate here.
From Desserts to Beer
The decorated pastry chef certainly didn’t see brewing beer in her future, but when the Monday Night Brewing team approached her with an opportunity to partner up, it soon revealed itself to be a natural fit. “Peter [Kiley, the Monday Night Brewing Brewmaster] reached out to me about this beer collab, and I was like, ‘Well I’ll take this meeting but I don’t really drink beer and I don’t know much about the process. But I’m always down to learn other crafts.”
She continues, “As soon as we sat down, we started talking about Atlanta and the industry and restaurants and we weren’t even talking about beer…we were just having a conversation about what we’re both passionate about.” Then the lightbulb moment came.
“He told me he had this idea for a beer that was designed by a chef,” she says. “And we started going back and forth about desserts and flavors that I really like.” After bouncing ideas back and forth, she found inspiration in a childhood favorite: a Venezuelan Oatmeal Cookie. This led to her making a batch of those sweet treats and she and the Monday Night team ate them and started working on a beer with Venezuelan chocolate, cardamom, vanilla, coconut, and sea salt (“because I always add salt to my desserts.”)
Finally it was ready for her to taste. “I actually really liked it. It’s very intense and there’s a lot going on. It’s a slow-sipping beer.” Considering it’s 13% ABV, you probably shouldn’t drink it much faster than a sip.
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“I’m a big fan of [Monday Night Brewing]. They’re very hospitable and I like working with people who are honest and not just trying to make money off these collabs.”
In addition to syncing up on the final product, they also found themselves aligned due to their mutual interest in helping out those in the Atlanta restaurant scene. This manifested itself in the proceeds of the beer sales going towards the Giving Kitchen.
“25% of the sales will be donated to the Giving Kitchen,” Claudia shares. “That’s just an amazing organization.” What she most values about it is that it exclusively helps those in the local restaurant industry, a group most at risk of losing their livelihood. “We’re the ones who get the least amount of government funding if something were to happen, and once you’re out of work, you don’t have anything to fall back on, like in corporate jobs. A lot of our restaurants are made up of undocumented workers who bust their ass and work all these crazy hours and then if something were to happen, they don’t have that support.
“I like that The Giving Kitchen does what they can to help our people.”
The Chef Series: Claudia V. Martinez Barrel-Aged Blended Strong Ale can be purchased at either of the Monday Night Brewing Company locations. Learn more here.
The Source of Claudia’s Inspiration
I had initially started my conversation with Claudia Martinez in order to learn more about her love for pastries and her experience in prestigious Atlanta restaurants, but what emerged as the true story here was her affinity for giving back to the less fortunate. At the end of our call, I asked where this drive came from. Had she recently developed this focus, or did it stem from further back?
She answered, “It’s a lot of my upbringing. I’m super close with my parents and sister, but I’m the only one in the family that has a career path that’s not so much about giving back.” As mentioned earlier, her parents were both pastors; her sister joined the Peace Corps and did public health and is now working for the California Youth Services (mission statement: “helping kids succeed beyond the troubled circumstances that surround them.”) “So we always grew up being told to give back when you can to those who need it.”
No matter the line of work or the level of success, this philosophy never wavers. Even when she got her James Beard Award nominations, her dad said, “Okay, but what are you doing for others or what can you do with your platform?” This led her to realize that “if I do start getting some recognition, I can use my platform to give back.”
This applies to her entire industry: “I think it’s important because as chefs, we tend to forget that the main thing we’re doing is hospitality and creating a dining experience. But it needs to translate to the outside world. You need to be hospitable to other people and put yourself in their shoes. I think we have an opportunity as chefs to come together and do what we can. I’m very thankful for the chefs in Atlanta who have partnered with me or inspired me to do more.”
While it may initially be surprising to hear such a philanthropic philosophy coming from a pastry chef, who better to live a life of service and hospitality than someone who does it for a living?
Everybody is welcome at Claudia’s table.