Pastry chef Claudia Martinez is at the top of her game

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Claudia Martinez

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

It starts with a soft and moist coconut almond cake. White chocolate panna cotta, tossed with a little baby spinach for color, layered with chopped white wine poached pears. A few mounds of moss, little toasted coconut haystacks, all finished off with a forest green leaf tile and tiny pansies.

Claudia Martinez’s desserts are whimsical but unpretentious, with a style that reflects her Venezuelan and southern roots. Her cuisine, exuberant and feminine with a warm and intimate core, like pink Pop Rocks on strawberry shortcake, is playful and unconventional, bold and balanced. Her meticulously plated creations evoke natural forms, oil painting, modern architecture and interior design. “I don’t like dessert to be one-note,” Martinez says. “When your spoon touches the dessert, however cleverly crafted, all the components are together.”

The 29-year-old, who has lived in Georgia since she was seven, started building her pastry rep four years ago, working at Eugene’s restaurant before leading the dessert program at Tiny Lou’s. In March, Martinez joined Miller Union, one of the best restaurants in town and the top in the game for an Atlanta pastry chef.

At first glance, Martinez might not have seemed the obvious choice for Miller Union, whose former pastry chef, Pamela Moxley, made typically intimate, traditional, and clever Southern sweets, including a red velvet cake at beet. At Tiny Lou, Martinez was best known for her avant-garde—chocolate stiletto, blonde-inspired Clermont Lounge Blondie dancer—and for a painterly approach that drew on a range of influences, from her abuelita Julia to chef Dominique Crenn.

But Martinez is an artist dedicated to her craft, using baking as a form of expression that connects the evocative colors and tropical flavors of her Venezuelan roots (in ingredients like coconut, mango and lulo, a citrus with hints of rhubarb and lime) with the place she now calls home. It’s no coincidence that its mini vanilla-glazed donuts – served, during my visit, with pumpkin seed cherry crunch and five-spice ice cream – are decidedly reminiscent of Krispy Kreme. That’s what happens when you grow up somewhere. The flavors, textures and techniques of this place seep into your marrow.

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Miller Union’s kitchen is remarkably small, around 800 square feet, and often houses 15 people, not including servers. They come and go — prepping, chopping, cooking, washing — in the kind of orderly chaos that makes restaurant work so exciting. Sandwiched between dishwashers and prep cooks, Martinez seems fueled by that energy. She fills an ice cream maker with a base of pecan nuts while steam rises to her left and a cook picks the cheeks off a huge fish head to her right. Bags of leafy pink radishes and okra arrive, along with ripe satsuma, which she incorporates into a chocolate-hazelnut mousse. She sees everything that comes in, making sure her desserts are in harmony with the ingredients and flavors on the menu.

“The only other job I thought of was being a social worker,” Martinez says. She was born into a family dedicated to public service: her father, Aquiles, is a professor of religion, which took them to Denver, where Claudia was born, and then to Georgia in 1999. Her mother, Nora, worked as a family lawyer for Head Start, and with faith-based organizations dedicated to immigrants. Her aunt, Aura, was a social worker, and in high school Martinez became interested in combating human trafficking and other human rights abuses.

In the end, she felt called to cook. At 18, she got her first job in the kitchen of the now closed Brio Tuscan Grille in Buckhead. She loved it and her parents agreed she could go to culinary school, but only if she took it seriously. Martinez attended Johnson & Wales in North Carolina, working in fast food chains – and spending a summer cooking in New York – before returning to Atlanta, where she found work as a line cook at Umi and Atlas. , among others. She never intended to be a pastry chef, a role that many female chefs feel pressured into. But while working at Restaurant Eugene, she was inspired by Aaron Russell’s savory approach to desserts – evident in preparations like the celery ganache – and later fell in love with the craftsmanship.

At the same time, she maintained a commitment to causes that piqued her interest in social work. Today, Martinez is using some of the profits earned from her pop-up, Café Claudia – through which she sells everything from cookies to sticky caramel pudding – to support food workers struggling with Covid- 19, and organizations such as the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Buford’s Los Vecinos Freeway.

When Miller Union chef and co-owner Steven Satterfield began the search for a new pastry chef — one he took seriously because he loves desserts — applications poured in. Martinez stood out. “Her personality was so cool and calm, but she had a very strong point of view. The flavors were subtle yet strong at the same time. Nothing was too sweet and there was lots of salt, which I loved” Satterfield said, “His food was seasoned.”

The winning dessert, which she prepared for her tasting, was crumbled cornbread topped with white wine poached pears and goat cheese panna cotta, a combination Martinez came up with on the fly after seeing what Miller Union had. at hand, and that it continues to adapt. . “I play nostalgic flavors and then try to plug in things I grew up with or saw, and put them into more familiar desserts,” she says.

The irony: Martinez is not a big dessert eater. She is more likely to order sorbet at the restaurant than crème brûlée. But each of his plates is a canvas, and the interplay of shapes, textures and sensory experience seems to bring him immense joy. She can’t quite pinpoint the inspiration for her desserts, but she has a gift that is the quintessence of artists: the ability to bring her imagination to life and put it, in this case, on the plate.

Anatomy of a dessert

Dessert by Claudia Martinez

Photograph by Brinson + Banks

Martinez combines an expert mastery of baking technique with a painter’s eye and a fridge full of extremely seasonal ingredients. Here’s how one of her nifty desserts breaks down.

1. Coconut Cake with Meyer Lemon Custard: the centerpiece of the dessert, covered with a yellow colored white chocolate glaze. It is fashioned in a ring mold designed by one of Martinez’s mentors, David Vidal, for whom she interned in Sweden.

2. Dots of coconut-white chocolate ganache play the coconut in the cake. Martinez designed the dish to be a less sweet take on coconut cream pie, appealing to diners’ nostalgia while incorporating local produce – in this case, citrus fruits – that are at their disposal. best in the middle of winter.

3. Blood orange appears in two ways: raw and in a whipped mousse, adding acidity and a “fun texture”, says Martinez. “Steven Satterfield loves showcasing local fruits and vegetables.

4. White chocolate crumbles offer a contrast with all the surrounding smoothness.

5. Pinch of Maldon sea salt bring out the sweetness. When Satterfield hired a new pastry chef at Miller Union, part of what drew him to Martinez was that his desserts weren’t overly sweet and incorporated lots of salt.

6. Micro pairs of chervil good with the acidity of the lemon—and it sounds pretty! “I try to use microgreens and edible flowers as much as possible,” says Martinez.

Back to our guide to the best pastries (and breads!) in Atlanta

This article originally appeared in our February 2022 issue.

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