Claire Walker Lamborne ’64
Embarks on a Career of Passion
By Aimee Dolaway Olivo ’99
Claire Walker Lamborne ’64 is doing what she loves. That makes waking up at four in the morning and working seven days a week easy. It wasn’t always like this.
In her mid-30s, as a middle school teacher in Alexandria, Virginia, many of Lamborne’s fellow teachers were counting down the years until they reached retirement. Lamborne didn’t want to be in that boat, so she took a leave of absence to figure out what she wanted to do in life.
She moved to the Caribbean, bought a sailboat and lived on the water for a while.
Lamborne had cooked since she was a young girl. During her years at Trinity as a “day-hop” (commuter student), Lamborne juggled her studies while playing the mother role in the family. She ran the carpool and cooked for her seven siblings because her mom became “career woman” after her father died during her junior year of high school.
While in the Caribbean, Lamborne’s reputation as a good cook started to get around. There, cooking was a hobby more than a duty and she was able to really enjoy it. When she started working in a restaurant in St. Thomas she realized this was it, this was her next career. Lamborne returned to northern Virginia and enrolled in L’Academie de Cuisine, from which she graduated in 1981.
Seventeen years after earning her bachelor’s degree in economics from Trinity, Claire Walker Lamborne had re-invented herself and officially embarked on a career of passion. She moved to Charlottesville and bought a little restaurant named Martha’s Café. There, she says, “I made every mistake in the book!” After the second year in business, the café, by then re-named Claire’s, had to close for financial reasons. Lamborne explains, “I didn’t know you had to pay taxes – food tax, sales tax, I got behind and simply couldn’t catch up.”
During the seven years it took Lamborne to pay all of her back taxes, she moved back to northern Virginia and worked her way though some of the area’s best restaurants. There she was able to learn the business of running a restaurant from the inside.
Most helpful to her restaurateur education was working for Great American Restaurants, a group of six restaurants and one bakery in the Washington, D.C. area. Lamborne says they are a fabulous company with truly well-run restaurants. Training included working every single station in a restaurant’s kitchen. There she learned the importance of taking and keeping track of inventory. She learned the importance of consistency and of writing – and following! – a recipe. After working in a few Great American Restaurants and others in the area, Lamborne was asked to come to Warrenton as a consultant to open a restaurant called Legends. She stayed for six months to develop recipes and the menu, train staff and open the restaurant. In the meantime she fell in love with Warrenton and decided to stay there.
While working in another kitchen in Warrenton, Lamborne started catering and word got out. Before she knew it she was catering a huge cancer benefit and things started taking on a life of their own. Lamborne decided she was ready to make the leap from being an employee to putting out her own shingle and doing it on her own. She found a great old house which was conveniently zoned commercially, got a small business loan, and put in a commercial kitchen with $10,000. Today she estimates it would take at least $100,000 to do the same!
The Warrenton area was growing and her new catering business boomed right along with it. There were lots of weddings. She continued to come back to Alexandria and Washington, D.C., for events, and one year was even the exclusive caterer for the local Gold Cup steeple chase races, providing catering for 18 private party tents simultaneously.
In the meantime Lamborne opened a little carryout place called Claire’s Too in downtown Warrenton. It was open only for lunch and served soup, salads, sandwiches and sweets. Lamborne laughed, “I’m the queen of leftovers and the carryout shop was a great utilization of leftovers!”
As business continued to boom, the failure of Claire’s Café in Charlottesville was always in the back of her mind. She had learned so much over the years and had a strong desire to give the restaurant business another go. “I felt like I had one more big venture in me” she notes. In September 2004 Lamborne was able to sell the building that housed her catering business as well as the carryout shop to buy Warrenton’s historic 1852 train station which had previously housed a restaurant called The Depot. In four months she put $500,000 in renovations into the building and re-named it Claire’s at the Depot.
Three years later, she knows she’s done it right this time. Now, Lamborne is adept at reading financial reports, manages 20 full-time and a few part-time employees, has firm control of her inventory and can step into every role in the restaurant with comfort.
She loves reading food magazines and books and is a self-professed “Top Chef” junkie. Even as Claire’s at the Depot has gotten into its groove, Lamborne’s personal approach to food continues to evolve. Favorite ingredients of years past she wouldn’t touch now. She buys local and organic whenever possible. She follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list for fish to avoid. Much of the menu changes seasonally. During the months that Lamborne can’t get crab from the United States, crab cakes go off the menu, whereas before she would have just used pasteurized crab imported from other countries. Right now tomato and brie is going off the menu, chicken curry is coming on. Fruit tart just came off and apple crisp came onto the menu. Local Virginia staples like country ham and grits are regularly featured. During her interview, one of the kitchen staff came out to the garden to snip fresh dill and thyme for that evening’s dinners.
Still, Lamborne will be the first to tell you it takes a lot more than a love of food and ability to cook to run a successful catering business or restaurant. She says anyone who knows her will tell you that she has an incredible drive and a really strong work ethic. “I didn’t have this feeling in my 20s and 30s,” she explains, “I think it must come from doing what I love. And, I do love food!” Her advice for any would-be entrepreneur: don’t just jump in. Do your research. Write a business plan. Go through a lawyer. If numbers aren’t your strong point, seek out really good financial advice. “If I had known more about how risky the restaurant business was, who knows? You have to look at the whole picture; just being a good cook is really only part of it.”
As for following a recipe? When Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema reviewed Claire’s at the Depot in September 2005 he wrote, “Claire’s Famous She Crab soup merits the crowing. Thick with its namesake crab, the sherry-laced appetizer balances its expected richness with a bite from both cayenne and hot pepper sauce. Every spoonful delivers a pinprick of pleasure.” When I tasted the She Crab Soup at lunch before our interview, my cup tasted just like Sietsema’s description. Lamborne says that’s the secret – consistency. Her famous She Crab Soup will taste exactly the same every single time because the recipe is followed with precision. I for one can’t wait to get back to Warrenton to enjoy it again!
• The original train ticket window has been preserved throughout all the renovations.
• Claire keeps fake vegetables in her home refrigerator – otherwise it would be completely empty!
• Claire’s Catering is Robert Duvall’s personal caterer.
• Lamborne would love to learn French someday.
Included in the food order for a recent sit down dinner Claire’s catered for 300+:
• 640 shrimp on skewers
• 336 filets of beef
• 100 pounds of potatoes
• 50 pounds of heirloom tomatoes
• 6 cases of Arugula, Frisee and Boston Bibb lettuce
Funny moment in catering:
Claire’s was catering a reception after a memorial service in town. As is frequently the case, the family was simply going to leave the door unlocked for the servers to come in and set up while everyone was at the service. The staff arrived and the house was clearly not ready for them at all! So, the staff got busy cleaning the house, sweeping leaves off the patio and searching high and low for the alcohol (the host had indicated she’d provide her own) to set up the bar. Just as the staff was putting on the finishing touches, the owner arrived at her home shocked to find a fully catered party set-up. The reception was supposed to take place next door! Luckily the owner of the mistaken house was also an extended family member and took it all in good stride – after all, she had gotten her house cleaned for free! The staff got everything moved next door just in time for the guests to arrive and the story provided a little bit of comic relief for the mourners.