The connection between the current dessert menu at The French Laundry in California, arguably America’s most admired restaurant, a vicarage kitchen in the Buckinghamshire countryside and the once popular J Lyons Corner Houses may not be initially very obvious but it is encapsulated in the smiling, but steely determined person of pastry chef Claire Clark.
Last year Clark became the UK’s most significant culinary export when she left her job as Executive Pastry Chef at the bustling Wolseley on Piccadilly for a similar position at The French Laundry in Yountville in the heart of the Napa Valley.
Clark was back in London recently to prepare desserts in her role as consultant to BA and when we met over a cup of tea (she is an avid tea drinker and by her section in The French Laundry’s kitchen is a china cup and a silver teapot from The Wolseley given to her when she left) I wanted to know just what she had done to convince Thomas Keller, the demanding chef/proprietor of The French Laundry, that she was the right person for the job.
“Keller had placed an advert in Caterer & Hotelkeeper [the main UK restaurant trade magazine] and I knew he was coming to London. The problem was that the ad called for a cv and I didn’t have one. Since I started as a pastry chef 23 years ago I have managed to move upwards via word of mouth and recommendations so I never needed one but I remember sitting down at 1am after service with a friend and typing mine out along with some of my dessert recipes. It must have been enough because he invited me out to Per Se, his New York restaurant, and then California to put me through my paces.
“During the four days I was at Per Se I had to prepare two original desserts and a sorbet plate and then work during the service. All my expenses were covered but I wasn’t of course being paid. Then in California I had to produce one original dessert, one sorbet, seven types of petits fours and four types of chocolate. It wasn’t easy in either place because I didn’t know my way around the kitchens and the milk, cream and chocolates are very different over there and so was the temperature. It was baking hot in California last May so I went into the kitchen at 0330 to ensure I got everything right.”
But it was as much how Clark prepared for this ordeal as what she cooked that impressed Keller. “It had been a real struggle at Per Se to use the kitchen scales because everyone wanted to use them at the same time and they had the added pressure of getting ready for service. So when I got to The French Laundry I decided that the best way to prepare was to spend two hours weighing all the ingredients I would need and then storing them in the right place until I needed them. Keller saw me doing this and I think this approach convinced him as much my dessert which was a hollowed out flourless chocolate cake filled with poached cherries which had just come into season.”
That taste and preparation are equally important aspects of the pastry chef’s craft have been drummed into Clark since she was a little girl and provide the link to the vicarage she grew up in and J Lyons.
“My mother is a wonderful cook and there was never a bought biscuit or cake in our house. She made everything - meringues, mini-éclairs and birthday cakes - and when she said that I was not going to be good enough to follow my then biggest passion and become a musician I decided to become a chef. But, aged 17, I was only 6 stone and I remember fainting on my first day at the college stoves so I moved to the much cooler pastry section and I have been there ever since.”
Clark moved to London and as a second commis chef at the Inter-Continental remembers six months spent scooping out sorbets and plating petits fours for banquets of 900 but has far happier memories of her pastry education at the hands of Ernest Bachmann and John Huber, two Swiss patissiers who had come over originally to work at J Lyons.
“I worked five days a week in the hotel under Bachmann and then one day a week with Huber and what they taught me was invaluable. There may be clutter in the rest of the kitchen but there must never be any where you work. After every step you have completed, you must stop and clean down and focus on the next step. It was training in precision, how to judge the situation and the best way forward but one ideally suited to the professional kitchen where one has to think very quickly but never sacrifice standards.”
Over the past six months Clark has switched from preparing one dessert for the 800 to 1,000 customers The Wolseley serves daily to the five plates – a sorbet, a dessert, a lemon posset and crème brul cuvée, a tray of chocolates and a bag of shortbread each French Laundry guest takes away - for the maximum 75 customers she now looks after. But what, I wondered, had been the most exciting surprise?
“Well, it’s obviously being in the middle of the countryside rather than in a city. Keller has his own fruit and vegetable farm and the farmer comes and sees me in the late afternoon to see what I would like for the next day’s menu and its there at 0530 the following day. One morning he brought in 20 types of figs of which I had only ever seen and tasted about half a dozen. And he has even been on the internet to scour the US for an apple as good as the English Bramley so that I can make a proper apple jelly. It is also wonderful to wake up to sunshine and not to be working in a basement. But their milk, cream and butter are much less satisfactory than what I have been used to, neither rich nor thick enough. I wish they’d sort their cows out!”
With the current renaissance of patisserie and tea shops I wanted to conclude by asking Clark some more general questions. Did she consider herself a virtuoso as one former employer had described her? “Yes but I am not ashamed of it. I am demanding and I have made huge personal sacrifices for my profession as there is not much of a social life when you finish work in the early hours of the morning, but chefs don’t compromise so why should I?”
And to my final two questions she ended on a pessimistic then optimistic note. “I am not too confident about the future of patisserie in general because I just don’t think that there are enough people teaching the right techniques for it prosper. There has been a loss of too many professionals with their life time of knowledge and as a result chefs are taking too many short cuts and dessert menus are becoming too predictable and disappointing.”
But, happily for anyone in the UK with a sweet tooth, Clark will return. “I miss my family too much. I will be back here one day.”