…I wish someone told me that no matter how close you feel to your client, you are not their friend. You are their employee. For instance, you can grow a close professional relationship, give advice, and you still get fired.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Claudia Diawara.
Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka and raised in Zurich, Switzerland, Chef Claudia Diawara has been cooking professionally for over a decade. As a private chef catering to an exclusive roster of high-end clients, Claudia specializes in vegan-based cuisine and fine dining with a focus on French cuisine. She began her cooking career as a line cook, working up to a Sous Chef and quickly became the Executive Chef in one of the hottest kitchens in Zurich where she was able to complete her studies in the Culinary Arts. It was at this time she moved to Europe to immerse herself in the culture and cuisine of Italy and France to learn from the best before returning to the states to start her own business in Marietta, GA called Green Lab Kitchen.
Prior to entering the Culinary Arts, Claudia was a television personality, voice-over actor, dancer and circus performer with the prestigious Cirque du Soleil in Montreal, Canada. She’s traveled all over the world performing with various artists and brings her international flair into her cooking for private and corporate clients.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
When I was growing up in Switzerland as a young child, I decided to join the circus and that gave me the opportunity to be part of an amazing group of people that came from all walks of life. This experience allowed me to travel the world and exposed to the various ways food brought people from all cultures together at one table. It really opened my eyes to all the influences being a chef and food could have on people.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I don’t have one specific type of food that I focus on, however, I am passionate about plant-based entrees. I wanted to create plant-based French cuisine, particularly how to make meat alternatives out of beans or other plant-based ingredients. A story I have about this is when I was working with a client that was transitioning from an omnivore diet to plant-based diet, this really challenged me to find ways of still fulfilling all this protein nutrients with plant-based items. This made me start experimenting with different ingredients and taught me how to use them without losing any flavor or texture.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
When I was 14 years old, I had my own TV show that focused on covering different artists and celebrities. Funny enough, when I was in Cirque DuSoleil, I met those very same artists and celebrities because they came to watch me perform. Sadly, I had an injury in Cirque, and I decided that I wanted to try to become a hip-hop dancer and for a third time, I came across with the same people however, we were working together on tour. After an amazing run touring with these top artists, I decided to pursue my passion for cooking and throughout this journey, I again found myself cooking for these same people as their private chef. The biggest lesson here is to never burn your bridges and always remember when you came from.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
A hard time I faced early on was being underestimated for my passion because I was a woman in this male-dominated industry. I had to show that I had just as good skills, the heart, the eagerness to learn, and most importantly that I had the ability to go above and beyond in whatever I did. I overcame this obstacle with the perseverance to continue to grow and learn as I went and to stay on the course of becoming the best chef I can be.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
In my experience, they key is simple is best. Staying simple while implementing my own touches is always worked best for me and my clients love the simplicity.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Love this one! The perfect meal for me is a bowl of ramen soup. It looks and sounds so simple, but this dish is an art and it’s so complex. So many flavors come into play and it’s just a wonderful experience for your taste buds.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration comes traveling the world, reading, surfing the internet, and of course my mood. I sometime just start cooking and do whatever feels natural at that moment. That’s when my best dishes happen, and they feel so authentic to me.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes! I am currently working on creating a plant-based sausage and refining my vegan cookbook. I think these items will influence how people think about plant-based food, as it pertains to taste and ease. Plant-based food can be delicious and can be easily made from simple ingredients you have readily available in your pantry.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Biggest thing — stay true to yourself, know your limits, and it’s totally okay to say no. It’s easy to get caught up in this industry and forget why you started this career in the first place. Keeping these things in mind, will help guide your path and help you stay in line.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- I wish someone told me that no matter how close you feel to your client, you are not their friend. You are their employee. For instance, you can grow a close professional relationship, give advice, and you still get fired.
- I wish someone told me it’s okay to not change your price and it’s okay to pass on those opportunities. Working for friends and family can be a challenge, especially when they want a discount. It’s hard to provide the same quality of service when they are paying half the price and requiring so much of your bandwidth.
- I wish someone told me that an event starts before you send a menu to a client. For instance, the client thinks that the price you charged is only for the day of the event, while we know there’s an event execution day without days, weeks or even months of preparations.
- I wish someone told me to run when you hear these words: “It’s A Good Way to Promote Yourself.” An event for 1,000 people requires a lot of preparation from sampling some foods and spending most of your time at the event serving instead of promoting. At the end you realize you lost more money than actually gaining any new clients.
- I wish someone told me that it’s an industry that overworks you but underpays you. As a chef you are often on bi-weekly salary based on 40 hours a week, but always end up averaging about 60 or more hours per week and there is almost nothing you can say about it.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
One dish that I highly recommend people try when they visit is my Vegetable Penang Curry with White Basmati Rice. It’s truly the best! And it’s a great entry recipe to try if you want to dabble with plant-based foods that are flavorful.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to start a movement that would show that it is possible to eat healthy and balanced diet. I would want people to know that this is accessible and possible even with a small budget and very little cooking skills and tricks.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!