This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Few women will admit that after years in the public gaze they need a facelift. But that is precisely the conclusion chef Sally Clarke reached, professionally, three years ago when she began the radical overhaul of her restaurant and shop that has been a fixture of Kensington High Street, west London, since she first opened on 7 December 1984.
In January 2013 her shop moved across and into Campden Street, 100 yards away. In August the entire restaurant closed for a month with a Bar Room, graced by two Grayson Perry drawings, taking the shop's place to serve breakfast and lighter meals at lunch, tea and in the evening.
The main dining room has been transformed by the removal of cumbersome 1980s air conditioning so that the large knife and spoon hanging from the wall, picked up from a second-hand shop on Pimlico Road, appear even more inviting.
The two significant additions are a private dining room opposite the brand new kitchen in the basement and a Garden Room on the ground floor. The combination of natural light and five Lucien Freud drawings on the wall (Freud lived only a few doors away and was a regular customer) plus curtains, linen tablecloths and the green-backed Gatti wicker chairs make this a particularly enticing room in which to eat.
It was here that I caught up with Clarke, who, despite the fussing, the continuous self-criticism – 'we never seem to get our cappuccinos quite right' – and the miles she scampers between the kitchen, dining room, shop and large bakery in north Kensington, in a white chef's jacket over jeans – does not seem to have lost her smile.
This is partly due, I suspect, to the fact that although her business has grown she still holds fiercely to the principles that inspired her.
In December 1984 Clarke's opened with a no-choice four-course menu for £17.50, a menu that was determinedly seasonal – although she did recall that on the first night the lamb was served without a sauce because she had forgotten to make the lamb stock the day before.
'From when I was 14, travelling through France with my parents and seeing these simple, honest menus in the bistros, I became convinced that not everything on long, complex menus could be fresh. And if it couldn't be, why bother?' she laughed.
Several years' cooking for Michael McCarty in Santa Barbara, California, reinforced these beliefs, as did a visit as a customer to Chez Panisse, Alice Water's seminal restaurant in Berkeley. Clarke was determined to instill these principles into her London restaurant.
McCarty shaped Clarke's in one other very distinct fashion – he warned her off taking partners into her restaurant. Clarke was, happily, able to turn to her family; to her father initially for a loan she paid off within 18 months; to her mother, Sheila, who at the age of 86 still drives up from Surrey at 3.30 am every Monday to meet her manager, Colin Livingston, to buy the flowers at Covent Garden market and then arrange them in the restaurant; and, subsequently, to her husband, art dealer John Morton Marsh, who has masterminded this complex property transformation.
Having begun to bake the bread just for her own restaurant in January 1985, Clarke now employs 20 bakers who work day and night to supply 100 restaurants in London as well as Eurostar. Alongside them are a team of four who make the jams, pickles, quiches and chocolate truffles that have graced many London dinner parties.
The irony that the two principles she first staked her reputation on 29 years ago, a no-choice menu (albeit today described as a tasting menu) and the importance of seasonality, are now so fashionable and widely accepted is not lost on Clarke. And although she abandoned the fixed dinner menu some years ago, when she felt her restaurant was becoming too much of a 'special occasion venue' a no-choice three-course dinner menu for £29.50 remains one option, still written by her.
Her addiction to seasonality remains unchanged and reading Clarke's menu it becomes obvious that, as with any skilled artisan, age and experience bring a lightness of touch. It takes confidence to know when not to interfere too much, to compose a dessert described as 'soft vanilla meringue with buttermilk sorbet and the last of this season's raspberries'.
Sadly, this dish was on the menu the week before we ate there but there were numerous compensations. A rich, twice-cooked cheese soufflé; a plump chicken breast, from farmer Reg Johnson in Lancashire, with carrots and Brussels sprouts on to the top of which were shaved slices of pungent black truffles gathered in the woods of Wiltshire (£8 a serving); and baked quince with a brown sugar palmier biscuit. Wine prices are fair and Clarke's has a particularly impressive range of Ridge Monte Bello wines from California.
More impressive, perhaps, for anyone over 50 is the space between the tables and the opportunity to talk and listen generated by the new layout. In this Clarke is taking a bold step in that she is bucking a trend. But it would be a brave person who bets against her. Few, back in 1984, expected a female chef with a no-choice dinner menu to prosper for 29 years, especially one who forgot to make the lamb sauce the day before she opened.
Photo by Charlie Bibby.
Clarke's 122 & 124 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH
tel +44 (0)20 7221 9225