It starts with soft, chewy coconut-almond cake. White chocolate panna cotta, blended with a bit of baby spinach for color, layered with chopped, white wine–poached pears. A few mounds of mousse, little toasted-coconut haystacks, finished with a forest-green leaf tuile and tiny pansies.
Claudia Martinez’s desserts are whimsical but unpretentious, with a style that reflects her Venezuelan and Southern roots. Her food—exuberantly feminine with a warm, homey core, like pink Pop Rocks on a strawberry shortcake—is playful and unconventional, bold and balanced. Her meticulously plated creations call up natural forms, oil painting, modern architecture, and interior design. “I don’t like the dessert to be all one note,” Martinez says. “When your spoon hits the dessert, even though it’s artfully designed, all of the components are together.”
The 29-year-old, who’s lived in Georgia since she was seven, started building her pastry rep four years ago, working at Restaurant Eugene before going on to run the dessert program at Tiny Lou’s. In March, Martinez joined Miller Union—one of the city’s best restaurants and the top of the game for an Atlanta pastry chef.
At first glance, Martinez may not have seemed the obvious choice for Miller Union, whose previous pastry chef, Pamela Moxley, made quintessentially homey, traditional, and clever Southern sweets, notably a beet red velvet cake. At Tiny Lou’s, Martinez was better known for the avant-garde—a chocolate stiletto, a blondie inspired by the Clermont Lounge dancer Blondie—and for a painterly approach drawing on an array of influences, from her abuelita Julia to the chef Dominique Crenn.
But Martinez is an artist dedicated to her craft, using pastry as a form of expression that bridges the evocative colors and tropical flavors of her Venezuelan roots (in ingredients like coconut, mango, and lulo—a citrusy fruit with notes of rhubarb and lime) with the place she now calls home. It’s no accident that her mini vanilla-glazed donuts—served, when I visited, with pumpkin-seed cherry crunch and five-spice ice cream—are decidedly reminiscent of Krispy Kreme. It’s what happens when you grow up somewhere. The flavors, textures, and techniques of that place seep into your marrow.
• • •
The kitchen at Miller Union is remarkably small, about 800 square feet, and often houses 15 people, not including servers. They zip back and forth—prepping, chopping, cooking, washing—in the kind of ordered chaos that makes restaurant work so exciting. Sandwiched between dishwashers and prep cooks, Martinez seems fueled by this energy. She fills an ice-cream maker with a pecan base while steam billows up on her left and a cook picks the cheeks from a massive fish head on 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, ensuring that her desserts are in concert with ingredients and flavors across the menu.
“The only other job I thought about was being a social worker,” Martinez says. She was born into a family dedicated to public service: Her father, Aquiles, is a religion professor, which took them to Denver, where Claudia was born, then Georgia in 1999. Her mother, Nora, worked as a family advocate for Head Start, and with faith 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.
Ultimately, she felt called to cook. At age 18, she got her first kitchen job in the now closed Brio Tuscan Grille in Buckhead. She loved it, and her parents agreed that she could go to culinary school, but only if she took it seriously. Martinez attended Johnson & Wales in North Carolina, working at 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 many women chefs feel pressured into. But while working the line at Restaurant Eugene, she became inspired by Aaron Russell’s savory approach to desserts—evident in preparations like celery ganache—and subsequently became seduced by the craft.
At the same time, she maintained a commitment to the causes that piqued her interest in social work. Today, Martinez uses a portion of the proceeds earned through her pop-up, Café Claudia—through which she sells everything from biscuits to sticky toffee pudding—to support food workers struggling through Covid-19, and organizations such as the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and Los Vecinos de Buford Highway.
When Miller Union chef and co-owner Steven Satterfield began the search for a new pastry person—one he took seriously, because he loves desserts—the 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 but strong at the same time. Nothing was too sweet, and there was plenty of salt, which I loved,” Satterfield says. “Her food was seasoned.”
The winning dessert, which she prepared for her tasting, was crumbled cornbread topped with white wine–poached pears and chevre panna cotta, a combination Martinez came up with on the fly after seeing what Miller Union had on hand, and one she continues to adapt. “I play off nostalgic flavors, and then try to plug in things that I grew up with or have seen, and put them in more familiar desserts,” she says.
The irony: Martinez isn’t a big dessert eater. She’s more likely to order sorbet at a restaurant than creme brulee. But each of her plates is a canvas, and the interplay of shapes, textures, and sensory experience seems to bring her tremendous joy. She can’t quite pinpoint the inspiration for her desserts, but she has a gift that’s quintessential to artists: the capacity to bring her imagination to life—and put it, in this case, on the plate.
Anatomy of a dessert
Martinez marries an expert grip on pastry technique with a painter’s eye—and a fridge full of extremely of-the-season ingredients. Here’s how one of her artful desserts breaks down.
1. Coconut cake and Meyer lemon cream: the centerpiece of the dessert, covered in yellow-hued white chocolate glaze. It’s shaped 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 off 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—that’s at its best in the dead of winter.
3. Blood orange shows up two ways: raw and in a whipped foam, adding acidity and “fun texture,” Martinez says. “Steven Satterfield loves highlighting local fruits and vegetables.”
4. White chocolate crumbles provide a contrast with all the surrounding creaminess.
5. Sprinkles of Maldon sea salt bring out the sweetness. When Satterfield was hiring a new pastry chef at Miller Union, part of what drew him to Martinez was that her desserts weren’t overly sweet—and incorporated plenty of salt.
6. Micro chervil pairs well with the acidity of the lemon—and it looks pretty! “I try to use microgreens and edible flowers as much as I can,” Martinez says.
Back to our guide to Atlanta’s best pastries (and breads!)
This article appears in our February 2022 issue.