My Passion for Real Food.
Sally, you are soon going to celebrate thirty years of your restaurant Clarke’s in London’s Kensington Church Street. Have many things changed since you started?
From the age of twelve and a half I had the real idea that you could run a restaurant like your home. You could choose what was fresh from your garden or the market and then make your menu. How could a menu that is too large ever offer perfection in originality and quality? Nobody could do it.
Why did you want to be a cook?
My mother taught me the basics; my weekend joy was being in the kitchen, when my parents and brothers were in the garden or playing golf. It was joyful to prepare food. After school I went to a catering college where I learned the basics: how to clean a bath and how to make a bed. At the end of that I had not learned about food preparation, just the basic Escoffier, but then I went to Paris to the Cordon Bleu for finesse and style. Somehow it was a waste of time, but while I was there what happened was that I met American people that I never met before.
And what did Americans teach you?
Enthusiasm for the subject of food, wine and for the hospitality of the table. I was taken in hand by these Americans and they became my family. I was going to Bertillon for ice creams and looked at the menus. It changed my view. I stayed there one year. I went to the Grand Vefour at the Palais Royal to see Mr Oliver, I wanted advice about what I should do. Mr Oliver was in his late seventies, he gave me advice and he spoke about me to his son Michel, who was running the Bistrot de Paris where I had my first job.
So you became a French cook?
One of my friends at the Cordon Bleu wanted to open a restaurant in Malibu, California, and he called me. So I dropped London and went to Malibu, but it was just an idea. I spent a year driving around LA, searching. In 1979 all this was very exciting because until then everything was bourgeois and French, but my friend invented California Cuisine. During the day I was in the kitchen and in the restaurant at night. I learned a lot from him about what not to do. While I was there I was introduced to Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, just outside San Francisco, and she became my mentor, my guide, my friend. She stays with me when she comes to London. I think of her every day.
Is she special?
Yes, she tries to change the world view with Carlo Petrini; sustainable agriculture, edible education. She wants every child to understand where their food is coming from, and the art of the table. To bring the value of Slow Food, and not fast food.
What kind of food do you cook at Clarke’s?
We change the menu twice a day, lunch and dinner. When apricot is in season we do only apricot in salads, in the Bellini, in the jams; off season we don’t use it. We would not use raspberry for a dessert in February.
How did you decide to start your own place and why London?
After four or five years in California I felt it was the right time to come back home. I wanted to invest the little money that I had in my own country. I had kept coming back about twice a year, and each time I felt that England was rather depressed, all grey and not a healthy place. But in 1983 when I came back I noticed that houses were being renovated in Notting Hill. There was a sense of a positive feeling again, and I thought perhaps that was the right time. We had one menu with four courses, every night and no choice: like Alice did 43 years ago at Chez Panisse, which had made me realise that this crazy idea could work.
What are the four courses?
The first course and a main course, a selection of cheeses and then dessert. The lunch menu always has a small choice. Dinner could be pigeon or fish main course, with choice for people with allergies or other food intolerance. Within a few weeks we were full and within a few weeks after we opened in 1984 we had lots of good reviews; people seemed to like the idea.
What are your specialities?
In-season food, sourced from British growers. There is a heavy emphasis on olive oil, vegetables, and herbs and salads. The Mediterranean diet is and always will be the best, it has to be, no question, even if the fashion is for Japanese, Mexican or maybe Cuban.
Is your cuisine English, French, Italian, Greek, Spanish?
It is a combination of everything, fundamentally British using influences from Italy, France and Spain.
Our egg pasta with girolles mushrooms from Scotland and an artisan cured Speck ham from our suppliers. Risotto in the autumn would be sage, pumpkin, chestnut, Prosecco. We don’t do very much game, but tonight we have venison braised with orange peels, red wine and rosemary with parmesan polenta and some lovely big garden rocket leaves from Italy.
Menus have to be appropriate for the day, the season, the occasion?
In the summer I may change the menu five minutes before we open, because of the weather; if it suddenly changes.
You have many etchings by Lucian Freud on your walls?
He used to eat here very often. He used to come for breakfast, almost every day for the last ten years of his life. He would have a huge pain au raisin with a big cup of caffè latte or he would have an Earl Grey tea with lots of milk and I would tell him, “It looks revolting.” Then, towards the end of his life, he would have a whole bar of home-made nougat. He had an amazing stomach and would eat it in an hour and a half. He would use the table as a salon or would read newspapers – that was from 8:30 to 9:30am, before working. Then he would go to work and sometimes he would come for lunch at 1 or 1:30 and he always ate fish, whatever we had. He liked the heels of the bread and drank lots of Evian water. The older he got, the more he had soup. He did not like rice, he liked chips, sometimes he had an ice cream or a sorbet. Occasionally he came for dinner, depending on how he had to work. If he had time he would go to The Wolseley.
But are you still the cook?
Yes, I do the market over the phone at 10 or 11 at night. I come in between 7:30 and 8:30. I plan the menu, I prepare the fish. It is very important. Once the fish is clear I can plan the rest of the menu.
Fish is your favourite?
It seems to be the key to the formation of the rest of the menu.
I know what I want. We have a pastry department, but I taste and check. The fruits we use have to be as seasonal as the rest.
Do you have a speciality?
Good food, appropriate to the season and day.
What do your customers want most?
Regular customers come back and back because they feel that their diet will be looked after. They are not going to be overfilled in terms of portion. The menu will be balanced in every way, by colour, texture and content.
They are a very important part of our offering. Thirty years ago I served only Californian, French and Italian wines. California because I got to know so many winemakers there, and grew to appreciate them.
Predominantly those three, but we also have wines from Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and Spain. People drink wine today, as opposed to spirits – thirty years ago a business lunch would be two gin and tonics each and a shared bottle of wine. Now it is water and perhaps a glass of wine, which is a good change.
What will you do on 17th December to celebrate your 30th anniversary?
I will be working as normal during the day, and in the evening I will do a £30 menu instead of our normal which is £39. And it will almost exactly mirror what my first menu in 1984 was.
Salad of smoked salmon, crab with avocado and pink grapefruit, and then organic lamb from Wales as main course. I forget what the dessert was, but I will find something. I am going to have an accordion player, a young French girl that I found in the East End of London, and she will play at the beginning. I have invited my close family and a very few close friends.
What makes your success?
I am not successful. If I was successful I would have finished my second book by now. I would be able to afford a little house in the Luberon, maybe a little cottage in a vineyard in California, and I would have delegated more than I have.
Do you have a special style?
It is a passion and a constant drive for the achievement of perfection. I will never get there, but the drive is to get just as close as is within my capabilities.
Why has food become such an important issue today?
I think this is both good and bad. I think where it is good to talk about food as an important issue is when we talk about food miles, sustainable farming, farmers markets, Carlo Petrini and the Slow Food movement, and gardens in schools and prisons. I think when food is talked about as if it is a fashion it is not good.
Did you learn something from Lucian Freud?
I sat for a portrait for two years and he would often talk about his life. He would ask, “What is on the menu?” and nothing personal about me. I afforded him the same courtesy. I think that watching him work has possibly influenced my work, because he was painstaking in the way he would mix the colours on the pallet, cleaning his brush, choosing what tube of paint to use, studying what he was painting. He had that intense attention to detail, and it was a fact that he destroyed many pieces of his work if he thought it was not good enough. There was a great lesson.
London, 15th November 2014