Chef Claudia talks about her love of cooking amid the lively hustle and bustle of daily operations in the kitchen of the Williamsburg Inn.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. For women’s history month, I’m asking Claudia Fitzgerald, who is Chef de Cuisine at the Williamsburg Inn. One thing I read said you started out, you had been here before, and then came back.
Claudia Fitzgerald: Yes, sir.
Lloyd: Oh, when were you here before?
Claudia: I started here in 1991. I did my internship here through school, and then I just stayed on after school full time.
Lloyd: When I was a boy â€“ some time ago â€“ if you went out to eat, the chef was a man. Your mom or your grandma cooked at home. When did that start to change?
Claudia: It started to changed dramatically, I believe, maybe 10 years ago, and it’s just gotten more and more exposure and more public awareness of women in the kitchen.
Lloyd: Do you think that is a trend that is going to continue?
Claudia: Oh yeah, it’s definitely going to continue.
Lloyd: Do women enjoy chef’s work?
Lloyd: No, seriously, because my mother used to say she couldn’t stand cooking for that many people at one time, just wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t think about it, and I’m wondering what caused that to change?
Claudia: Well, it’s just a profession that’s just been opened to women. We’ve always been in kitchens, it’s just that we’re moreâ€¦
Lloyd: We’re more somethingâ€¦
Lloyd: One of the things I am curious about, when you are cooking, you’re by yourself, when you are a chef, you are with a ton of people â€“ does that bother you at all having to direct all those people?
Claudia: No, not at all, that’s the fun. That’s the fun. You have to be very organized, very flexible.Lloyd: Are you good with creating menus? Because I’m not.
Claudia: Yes and no. It’s probably one of my weaknesses, mainly because I like to cook very simple food â€“ good, hot, quality, but at the same time, there’s so many people that you have to cook for in a restaurant that you want to try and meet everyone’s needs.
Lloyd: Okay, that’s the question, what are the needs at the Williamsburg Inn â€“ this is not somebody that’s going to walk in off the street and order a hamburger.
Claudia: Oh, they do â€¦ the expectations at the Williamsburg Inn are very high. The guest is expecting top-notch, fresh quality, hot food, great service, and an all-around excellent experience.
Lloyd: Okay, I have no idea what the answer to this is, how do you go about that?
Claudia: I’m sorry, me neither (laughs heartily).
Lloyd: Yeah, you doâ€¦ (laughs).
Claudia: â€¦how do you go about that?
Lloyd: â€¦creating an excellent experience, I mean the service is fairly obvious.
Claudia: It takes a great team. You really have to develop a great team â€“ a cohesive work force is the name of the game to run a kitchen like this. And, we have a great team here â€“ everyone is involved, everyone is creative; they understand the expectations of the company and the hotel, and they love what they do.
Lloyd: I guess that’s the key to it, this would be kind of a demanding work, because you’re dealing with the public â€“ which is always kind of tricky.
Claudia: It is demanding work. It is.
Lloyd: Okay, from your first time here, interning, and you went on to stay, and now you’ve come back as Chef de Cuisine of the Inn â€“ what’s the difference?
Claudia: Oh, boy, what’s the difference? The difference is since I have grown from the last time I was here and I’ve been more involved and have more experience in other areas, the biggest difference I see for myself as a chef is that I’m more involved from the business aspect. I treat this kitchen like it’s my own, and I’m running my own business, whereas when I was here before I was still learning, I was still “gimme, gimme, gimme,” [information] and now it is like “okay, enough is enough.”
Lloyd: As a business, you wanted to be a chef, and then you came here to intern, did you want to be a business person?
Claudia: No, no, no, I had absolutely no idea of the business aspect of becoming a chef. I knew to cook. That’s what I wanted to learn, that’s what I love to do, I wanted to feed people, and that’s how I felt I made people happy. But it is a business; it’s running your business.
Lloyd: So, with your right hand you are the chef, and with your left hand you are the business manager of the kitchen.
Lloyd: Most people (including me) do not understand that you have to be the business head in this organization.
Claudia: Very, very, very important. Very important in this day and age.
Lloyd: Ah-haâ€¦Now, probably an unfair question, but in an eight-hour day, how much are you a chef and how much are you the business manager of the kitchen?
Claudia: Oh, I don’t know if you should ask me that todayâ€¦or yesterdayâ€¦
Lloyd: Well, I did, soâ€¦
Claudia: Well, I try to keep it 50/50, because I love being on the floor, but the more involved I get, and the more responsibility and the more that I have to run it like my business, I am less on the floor and more doing the business attributes. So, you know â€“ 75% business â€“ that’s a good chunk.
Lloyd: More than I thought it would be. The chefs I have known like to spend time in the restaurant dealing with customers, because it gives them a good feeling to see the chef. Do you try to do that?
Claudia: Oh yeah, it’s very important to the guest. They love seeing the chef â€“ man or woman. They just love it.
Lloyd: Are very many of them surprised any more that you are a woman?
Claudia: Oh all the time, Oh yeah â€¦
Claudia: Oh yeah, I get “Excuse me sir,” or when I go out, it’s “Could you please tell the chefâ€¦?” Things like that â€“ that’s why I wear earrings.
Lloyd: Uhâ€¦actually, that wouldn’t be much of a clue any more.
Claudia: (Laughs) True.
Lloyd: This may be unfair, too, but that’s alright. What do you want to do next?
Claudia: Ohâ€¦what do I want to do next? Actually, I never even really thought about it. I’ve been the kind of person that I’ve never really had any goals, so to speak. Like I try and train the staff now how important it is to your five-year [plan], ten-year [plan], I’ve never looked at it that way, I’ve just gone with the flow, and I take one day at a time.
Lloyd: When you left here, and I’m trying to think, did I read somewhere you went to St. John’s?
Claudia: Yes, I went to St. John.
Lloyd: That’s not exactly bad duty
Claudia: No, it wasn’t at all.
Lloyd: It’s one of my more favorite places. Why did you come back?
Claudia: I came back, all my family is here, and my home is here in Williamsburg â€“ is the main reason. And, when I was down in the islands, that was as far as I could develop myself, and I had the opportunity to come back here, and I just jumped on it.
Lloyd: How many people are above you at Colonial Williamsburg?
Claudia: Holy smokesâ€¦
Lloyd: A whole bunchâ€¦
Claudia: â€¦a whole bunch.
Lloyd: Never mind. I was just thinking could you, without leaving again, still move up?
Claudia: Oh yes, absolutely.
Lloyd: That’s why I was thinking you know, would you like to take over all the restaurants at Colonial Williamsburg?
Claudia: Absolutely not.
Lloyd: Too much business? Not enough “chef-ing?”
Claudia: Yeah, yeah, yeahâ€¦
Lloyd: I wonder where you could go where business isn’t going to be more than it is here, because the higher you go, the more business there isâ€¦let’s not talk about that, that’s depressing. I’d rather think about the food.I once talked to, and I cannot thinkâ€¦chef on the West Coast who is known for serving fresh flowers, fresh everything â€“ Alice Waters? I talked to her once about chef-ing, and she said the nicest part of it is the creation, because you can do something that no one has ever done before, and if it works out, and the guests like it, you’re a genius.
Claudia: You’ve got a winner!
Lloyd: Is that the same here?
Claudia: Yes, yes, yesâ€¦
Lloyd: I should think here you would have to serve some standards, no matter what.
Claudia: Oh yes â€“ Chateaubriand, rack of lamb, Dover sole, table side [preparation], that’s what people look for here in our dining room.
Lloyd: Are you still creative in the way that you were when you started, assuming of course, you were creative when you started and not just learning how to cook.
Claudia: Actually, when I first startedâ€¦you have all these incredible visions of what you want to do and how the food should look like, and what the guest wants, and by the time you get done with that plate, you have so much on that plate, and it is so big, and so tall, and so wide that you start to lose focus on what you’re really trying to get, and that’s just great flavors, hot food, simple beautiful food, and that’s what we try and do now. And that’s what the guests are looking for now; they’re not looking for any of that architectural design.
Lloyd: Someone said there is such a thing as too much on the plate. You loseâ€¦ the guest just looks at it and doesn’t really care.
Claudia: No, they don’t. They don’t want to get a plate in front of them and have to deconstruct it. They don’t want to have to break that down and figure out what’s underneath the next component.
Lloyd: Do you still have fun doing it?
Claudia: Oh yeah. Oh yeah I have a blast.
Lloyd: Every day?
Claudia: Every day? No? Every other day? No. I would probably say I have a blast 72 hours a day. I always have fun. You have to make it fun. You have to make it fun.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.