CLARKE’S AT 37: FOOD, FAMILY AND FREUD
As we restock our diaries and our wardrobes, the end of the UK's most recent lockdown is in sight. As Turnbull prepares our shops to open, our friends in hospitality slowly stir from their dormancy also, we caught up with one of West London's best-known chefs and businesspeople, the incomparable Sally Clarke. A masterclass in delicious food and a short jaunt across Hyde Park from Turnbull’s central offices, Clarke’s eponymous restaurant at 124 Kensington Church Street has hosted many famous faces (most notably the painter Lucian Freud – the inspiration behind our spring-summer collection) in its 37 years. Like Turnbull, her approach to customer service is universally democratic – in her own words – at Clarke’s they “greet a dustman in the same way as a duchess”. Here, here.
Turnbull: Did you always want to be a chef? Was food important to you growing up and did you always have a food-centric home?
Sally: I was always interested in cooking and even from the age of 12 or 14, would spend hours in the kitchen preparing dishes for my family – faithfully following the writings of Elizabeth David.
This was encouraged by both my parents, but especially by my mother who was also and is, a keen gardener. Family summer holidays were certainly focused on food, mainly through our travels to France – Normandy, Brittany and Les Landes.
You studied both at Croydon College and the Cordon Bleu in Paris, how has the world of food has changed since then?
My first lesson at Croydon was in the art of placing a glace cherry on a grapefruit half (which by the way I refused to do! – instead preferring to use a sprig of mint). But during my remaining 2 years, I learned so many techniques and skills – from bread baking to pastry, fish and meat preparation, sauce making, as well as the basics in accountancy and law within the hospitality industry. It was an invaluable experience.
Even though my studies at the Cordon Bleu taught me very little that was different from Croydon, simply the fact of being in Paris taught me so much – it was such a privilege to be there.
I could wander the streets, peering through restaurant and café windows – read their menus, visit the street markets and to see, for the first time, a variety of fruits, vegetables, cheeses and herbs which were then largely unknown in much of 1970s Britain.
Fast forward to now, and London, especially has sprinted ahead – and in many ways is leading Europe in its culinary innovation. Whereas France alone led the world 20-30 years ago, they have been overtaken by so many other parts of the world – from Japan to California, Spain and South America to Australia, Scandinavia and New Zealand. And I think it is fair to say that the UK has played an important part in this change also.
You have lived and travelled all over the world, where stays in your mind as having the most enjoyable food? And where do you get inspiration for your dishes and menus?
Southern France and northern Italy of course but Northern California is my touchstone – and has been for almost 40 years. It was there that I first learned about its dependability and connectivity with the seasons – and how vital that understanding is to the creation of a perfectly balanced menu – in every way.
The restaurant Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, close to San Francisco has been my one ‘constant’ in my development as a cook – and Alice Waters, its founder remains my guide and mentor daily. In normal times, I try to visit twice a year – finding inspiration in the sourcing and presentation of their menus, the commitment they show to supporting their network of farmers and suppliers, and as a result each time, I am propelled to try harder at Clarke’s.
What is it like eating at your restaurant? What can one expect from the experience?
We welcome our lovely customers through the door in a warm and friendly manner – not at all formally or stiff. We like to treat everyone in the same way – be they regulars who visit us three times a week or someone who had never heard of us – we try to wrap them all in a cloak of gentle nurturing and hospitality. At the same time, we treat each table as an individual, depending on their expectations and needs. Some require more attention than others, some wish to be ‘left alone’ – we try hard to be sensitive to these differences – it is part of Clarke’s training of each new member of the team. We aspire to offer an all-round experience to the customer – not only lovely food but comfortable surroundings, interesting art on the walls, service at the table which is correct but not formal, friendly but not familiar. In other words – each aspect is in balance with one another. We aim for the customer to leave us with a spring in their step, feeling replete not stuffed, well looked after, not stifled – and of course with the feeling that they cannot wait to come back again!
This year, Clarke's celebrates its 37th birthday – our many congratulations! You also have two retail shops, a wholesale bakery and a production kitchen, what has been the secret to your success?
Thank you – yes, while other restaurants may have a life span of three, five, 10 years perhaps, we have just kept going. Instead of opening branches elsewhere or franchised, as so many of our colleagues in the industry have done, I have felt more secure in staying ‘tight’ and instead have created businesses that have grown organically from the restaurant. First came the shop next door, then our Wholesale Bakery and Production Kitchen which still to this day ‘feed’ the shops with freshly baked and prepared items to take home. Then our second shop which we opened mid-pandemic last year – it was a mad plan, but we felt the lovely site on the corner of Portobello and Westbourne Grove could not be missed!
The pandemic has been, in some cases, an existential threat for the hospitality industry. What have you learnt navigating this crisis? And how can people help their local restaurants best?
It is like nothing before – it has numbed a great deal of creativity in our lives – not just within this industry, but in music, fashion and the performing arts also.
A year ago, there was healthy competition between us restaurateurs, I believe all offering something a little bit different – and on different levels. During this crisis, many have worked together to offer support to food banks, or cooked together to supply front line workers with meals. Who knows who will be able to survive the financial impacts of the past few months? Despite the government support, business owners have still had crippling costs to bear, and one day the repayments will have to be made.
Like Turnbull, you have had an inspiring roster of clients. And like us, you are protective over them, without revealing too much, who have been your favourite people to cook for?
We have been blessed to have had a faithful following for well over 30 years, from all over the world, and even now we find some of the grandchildren of our original patrons, arriving as customers in their own right.
We have never been hounded by paparazzi – instead, we received our well-known customers in a low key and discreet way – we allow them to be treated as ‘normal’ while protecting their privacy as much as possible.
It is a compliment to us I believe, that they feel comfortable in Clarke’s surroundings, and seem to be there for their guests, the food, wine and atmosphere, not for some of the other trappings of ‘being famous’.
It is a well-known fact that Lucian Freud used to have breakfast and almost every lunch with us each day, often accompanied by his family or his sitter at the time. His other guests often included Bono, Stella McCartney or the late Duke of Westminster.
Clarke’s has never attracted just writers or artists or bankers or ladies who lunch. We have thankfully attracted a healthy balance of all, from musicians of many varied disciplines, captains of industry and politicians (also of many varied disciplines).
One of our longstanding mottos is that we greet a dustman in the same way as a duchess – and whilst that may seem slightly hard to believe, we certainly aspire to!
Sally’s restaurant is busy getting ready for the public’s safe and imminent arrival and from Monday, 17th May they will be on hand for lunch and dinner. To secure a reservation, please use the ResDiary function on their website or call the restaurant on 020 7221 9225. As far as they know, there will be no curfew, so they kindly invite you to linger over dessert and coffee without any anxiety of needing to rush out of the door.
To donate to Hospitality Action, a charity established in 1837 that offers vital assistance to all who work, or have worked within hospitality in the UK, please visit their website.