Sally Clarke: interview
Sally Clarke‘s childhood dream was to become a chef. She tells Time Out's Jenni Muir how she successfully runs a deli, a café, a restaurant and a commercial bakery – while still finding time to cook supper every night for her young son
Sally Clarke has something of a fearsome reputation, but maybe that’s just because she knows exactly what she wants. Today she’s forsaken her chef whites for a blue-and-white floral shirt and long white apron. Her rings are strung on a gold chain around her neck. She looks quite the Home Counties housewife, as though she’s just taken a roast from the oven and hung the tea towels to dry on the rail of the Aga.
But that is a role she unequivocally rejected many years ago. Instead, she built a small empire comprising one of London’s most esteemed restaurants, a highly popular deli-café and a leading commercial bakery. More significantly, before Gordon Ramsay had even picked up a chef’s knife, she led not one but two culinary revolutions in Britain: one for fresh, seasonal, locally produced and organic food, the other for artisan-made bread. If you’ve ever revelled in a rustic loaf studded with nuts, dried fruit and herbs, you have benefited from her influential example. Nor do you have to book a table in her restaurant to enjoy Sally Clarke’s own food. Her bakery distributes daily to more than 100
other restaurants, hotels and shops including big names like Carluccio’s, Jeroboams, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason.
Running a restaurant is notoriously hard work. It’s physically demanding and, for an industry known as hospitality, the hours are ironically unsocial. Running a deli-café is no easy life either, generally requiring early starts in addition to the hard graft. So what drives Clarke to do all this and run a commerical bakery? She looks away, somewhat wistfully, and pauses briefly before replying, ‘Complete madness, I suppose,’ in a way suggesting that naïvety and sheer enthusiasm played a part in the early days, too.
Clarke's artisan bread is sold in Fortnums
Her mother, 78 years old, has been involved since the beginning – there when Clarke first unlocked the door of her new restaurant, by her side painting the walls, and even now rising before 4am every Monday to travel from Surrey to New Covent Garden Market to select the restaurant’s flowers for the week. Her father, now deceased, offered practical support too, helping her approach the bank for a business loan. But this was not without them first trying to dissuade Clarke from entering the restaurant game.
‘Though they had no experience of the hospitality industry themselves, they knew how tough it would be and for many years tried to encourage me to pursue other angles of food and wine that would allow me to live a “normal” life as well – to get married and have babies.’
But their daughter was resolute. ‘I stuck to my guns. I said to them: “Look, if it all goes wrong and I lose money, then it’s all my fault and you will be right, but I have to try.” And from then on they were fully on board.’
It was a dream she had been nurturing since she was about 14 years old, fuelled by family holidays in France. ‘We stopped at modest roadside places where the mother would be cooking for her family in the kitchen and have a few travellers in the dining room. She picked what was ready in the garden, or best at the market, and everything was seasonal and fresh. My idea was that running a restaurant like a home was the best way to present what was precious and best at the market.’
On leaving school she did a two-year course in hotel and catering operations at Croydon Technical College, and followed this with a three-month advanced course at the world-famous Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris. This was something of a disappointment, not least because it covered much of what she’d already picked up in Croydon. But living and working in Paris, where she stayed for nearly a year, proved invaluable. ‘In the three different restaurant kitchens I worked in I was the only girl and the only young person. At first they took me as a complete joke until they realised I just wanted to learn.’
Back in London she toyed with the idea of becoming a food writer and worked at Prue Leith’s catering business and cookery school, until a call from California changed her life. A friend from her Cordon Bleu days was opening a restaurant in Malibu and asked her to go and help out. She stayed in America (‘living in California was like a dream’) for about four years. ‘There I learned a lot more about food and how to care for it – how it was grown and how to be fussy about what I was buying – than I ever did in Europe.’ She sources fresh ingredients ‘within spitting distance if I can’ but otherwise exclusively from the British Isles, France, Spain and Italy, choosing organic wherever possible.
Sally sources seasonal, locally produced and organic food for Clarke's
One evening in 1979 she walked into a Berkeley restaurant called Chez Panisse and saw her own wayward ideas crystallised in a perfectly balanced no-choice dinner menu. The owner, Alice Waters, was and is America’s best-known female restaurateur and the two became great friends. It’s a common misconception that Clarke worked at the now internationally renowned restaurant, but she openly acknowledges the inspiration, and credits Waters with giving her the confidence ‘to try this somewhat crazy no-choice idea for myself in London’.
Being most familiar with central London, Clarke started looking for premises in Pimlico, then Chelsea, then Notting Hill. ‘I saw change had started – the big houses that had been turned into bedsits were being bought back and turned into family homes. There was a general air of improvement.’
One of the local estate agents took her under his wing and drove her around potential properties. He suspected the owner of a trattoria on Kensington Church Street wanted to sell up and retire and suggested they go for lunch there. They had a chat with the owner and in August 1984, after some time negotiating, Clarke signed the lease. Finally she had the opportunity to see whether her 15-year dream of a no-choice menu would work in London.
Giant cutlery available for large appetites
Time Out’s then food editor, Lindsey Bareham, was instrumental in bringing Clarke’s to national attention. Within a month or two of opening she had visited and returned with Drew Smith, then editor of the ‘Good Food Guide’, who wrote a favourable piece. The critic from the Observer followed and from there it snowballed. The no-choice menu was a hit, perhaps because it was always more flexible than it first seemed. Fussiness with food is something Clarke can’t abide, but she has always had other dishes available for vegetarians, or those with allergies, such as to shellfish.
Now, however, she feels her point has been made, particularly to friends and family who spent so long telling her it would never work. Last year she decided to offer a multi-choice menu. Partly because she felt Clarke’s had become too much of a special-occasion restaurant where guests booked once or twice a year instead of once a month. Partly because she felt Clarke’s should start to relax a little. Partly because she recognises that not everyone (herself included) wants to eat four courses for dinner these days.
So this uncompromising woman can, it seems, feel comfortable about changing her mind. And, despite her parents’ fears, she has not had to compromise her personal life in pursuit of her business goals. Clarke married and eventually had a child; her old friend Alice Waters was the natural choice to be godmother.
‘It was a complete miracle, but as my husband’s mother had him in her mid-forties in the 1950s, I felt I could do it in the late-1990s. I don’t take him to school or pick him up nearly enough but I am there on sports days and school plays and home almost every night to cook his supper.’ Whether he one day takes over his formidable mother’s business empire is still to be decided, but one suspects that for now he gets a multi-choice menu too.
Clarke’s, 124 Kensington Church St, W8 4BH (020 7221 9225/www.sallyclarke.com) Notting Hill Gate tube.