Sally's choice

14 June 2004
Sally's choice

Although she won't say it in so many words, Sally Clarke is hinting that she has some plans up her sleeve. Clarke's, her Kensington Church Street restaurant, is 20 years old this year, and the chef famous for the twin concepts of buying in only the best, money-no-object, most seasonal produce on the market, and then educating the paying public into appreciating it by offering a no-choice menu at dinner (though there is a choice at lunch), wants to mark the occasion with a few changes.

"We remember fondly the heaving 1980s when loud, braying city boys were here spending big bucks. They were good times - but its a different world now" Sally Clarke
"I think the restaurant and its menu will evolve," she says in measured tones. Evolve? Some would call Clarke's an institution. Surely she's not thinking about doing away with her famous no-choice menus? "Maybe." And even, dare I suggest it, introduce a carte? "Even," she laughs. "It is possible. Never say never." Well, this is a turnaround. Clarke, by her own admission, has always been resolute about her wish to serve food by decree: "In 1984 I set the restaurant up with the menu format to prove a point," she says. "There were so many people saying it would never work, that no one would ever come, or that ‘Yes, I understand what you mean by no choices, but of course there will be one or two'. ‘No', I said, ‘you don't understand. No choice means no choice.'" That insistence on doing it her way (alongside anecdotes of her physically removing mobile phones and cigarettes from the hands of those who disobeyed her rules) at one stage gave her a reputation for being earnest, tough and even a little scary. But Clarke is actually rather self-effacing. Yes, she is a serious person (there are no pans thrown or swearing in her kitchen, she says) and she talks seriously about her food, but never to the point of self-importance. If she chose in 1984 to dictate to diners what to eat, it was only done with the conviction that if the best ingredients available were used, it would take the need for choice out of the equation. Customers, instead, would be so wowed by what was on the plate they would trust everything the kitchen did from thereon in. Anyway, that was 20 years ago. Something has changed. For a start she is less forthright about the format. "It amazes me we are still here," she says. "It amazes me that people still want the set menu." On a simple level she has proved the point she set out to make. Very quickly Clarke's became a destination, and after sinking her own and some of her father's money into the venture, the restaurant broke even in 18 months. But on reflection, Clarke is also concerned that something of her initial vision has been lost. "Having a four-course set menu has formalised us to a degree," she says. "I think probably what has happened is that we have become a special-occasions restaurant, which is sad. I would love to revert to that place where people could drop in after the cinema or after a cocktail party or something." Certainly the dining room still has an informal, caf‚-breezy tone in appearance. Wooden chairs mind their own business, and white tablecloths lend crispness (but nothing starchy) to the scene. But you can see her dilemma. As well as the outlay of £49.50 if you take all four courses, or about £32 if you just take two, the increasing vogue among chefs in fine-dining establishments for tasting menus is edging perception of her menus towards something more akin to pomp and fussiness. As anyone who knows Clarke's cooking will testify, her lack of fussiness and pretension is exactly what has endeared her to diners over the years. "We have never been a cliquey place," she says. "We have never just had bankers, or publishers, or artists or ladies who lunch. We have always had a healthy mix of people." It is a formula that has given her restaurant such longevity, while all around, as she rightly observes, restaurants close within five years of opening, subject to the whims and fancies of fashionable taste. She has also resisted putting herself in the limelight, and disdains the tendency among modern chefs to chase (often brief) celebrity status. She criticises "the buffoons on the television" and Michelin-starred chefs who appear in "every glossy mag, in every newspaper, every day", not least because she thinks it creates a false impression for young people coming into the industry about what being a chef is all about. "The saddest thing is that it is fashionable to be a chef," she says, a comment on how cheffing can now be seen as a means to fame rather than an end in itself. It also distracts from the job in hand: "I think clowning around in a quiz show atmosphere is simply ghastly," she says, "and gives us all rather a pathetic name for ourselves. I know those guys, and I like them, but I don't know why they do it! Maybe there's some cash in it. But it doesn't show any respect for the food." It must amuse her to think that her own fad-free approach to cooking and honest ingredients, heralded 20 years ago, has now become the future that pubs, independent restaurants and chefs are all pledging their allegiance to. When the rest of London was heavily inspired by French haute cuisine, she was practising a completely fresh approach. It is tempting to cast Clarke in the role of quiet revolutionary. However, it is a claim she quickly denies. "I have never been a follower, but I don't think we have led other people," she says. "The Elizabeth David way of thinking, in terms of seasonality, buying locally and serving food that is appropriate to the weather has to be the way to go. And I don't think that as a fashion, if it can be called that, it will ever change, because it makes most sense." She gives a lot of credit for her own understanding of that approach to her mentor, Alice Waters, for whom she worked at Chez Panisse, in California, in the early 1980s. Clarke dubs Waters the "godmother of good food in America", a chef so beholden to seasonality that when invited recently to cook for Raymond Blanc's American Food Festival at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, she refused to supply a menu two months in advance like everyone else because she was adamant it could only be planned on the day. "It would be nice to think, however, that some of that is rubbing off on the up-and-coming chefs," Clarke adds with a smile. Rest assured that if the no-choice menu does go, her food will not change. Her vision of more relaxed dining is more than matched by her food. A starter of crisp pancetta with avocado watercress and mustard-honey dressing is simply assembled, delicious and huge - almost homely in appearance - while a lunchtime dish of scallops comes with a huge pile of salad alongside it. It avoids any over-working, because with this quality all that is needed is a light touch. What will also stay put are her other businesses, the deli, & Clarke's, next door (selling cheeses, breads, sauces, wine and take-away food prepared in the restaurant kitchen) and the wholesale bakery, & Clarke's Bread. The deli opened in 1988, and the bakery in 1990, and it is thanks to these, she says, that the whole business survives. The restaurant, it could be said, is more of a flagship, while the other two are so successful that she expects there to be a second & Clarke's in the not-too-distant future, and both will expand their range. But a second restaurant is unlikely. "We remember fondly the heaving 1980s, when loud, braying city boys were here spending their big bucks. They were good times - but it's a different world now," she says. "There is a lot more competition for the customer, but also a lot more competition for staff. There is a lot of choice out there for my guys to go and work elsewhere. It's tough. If I was setting up now I probably wouldn't!" It is refreshing to hear a restaurateur talk so candidly. She admits that her restaurant's bottom line is probably not as "rosy" as others would demand, but she is unrepentant about paying top-whack for produce: "I'm afraid that price has never been an issue for me when it comes to fresh ingredients," she says. "Price is an issue when we are talking about clingfilm, blue paper and rubber gloves, but in terms of fresh produce, it has never been price-driven." Well, as long as she only changes the menu, and not this approach, we should all be thankful. Chefs on clarkeRowley LeighChef-proprietor of Kensington Place, London "She had a very clear vision that she has never let be sullied. She always saw things on her own terms, in her own radical way. She has confidence in her own taste - and she has impeccable taste." Peter Robinson Chef-proprietor of the King's Arms, Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire "There are very few female chef-proprietors of her stature even now, and there were even fewer back when she started. People thought she was mad, but it has worked because quality shines through in the end. She has never followed fashion and while people still struggle to formulate the perfect menu she has consistently come up with good, simple food." Matt Tebbutt Chef-proprietor of the Foxhunter, near Abergavenny, and former Clarke's brigade member "She never suffered fads, but always made everything look great and served big portions. I always remember the staff meals were fantastic, serving us scallops just as she was serving them to the customers. She was also a real perfectionist and would arrive in the kitchen at 7am every morning." Recent menusLunch - Soup of vine tomato and chickpea with aubergine relish, soured cream and spiced breadstick - Artichoke, goats' cheese and leek tartlet with wild rocket leaves - Steamed Devon mussels with chives, shallots, cream and lemon - Salad of crisp pancetta, avocado, watercress and mustard honey dressing - Grilled Isle of Skye scallops with fava beans, tarragon and Sicilian olive oil - Roasted breast of corn-fed chicken with parsley pesto and pinenuts - Chargrilled sirloin steak with lambs' kidney and field mushrooms, rosemary and red wine glaze - Caerphilly and Golden Cross cheeses with oatmeal biscuits - Warm baked pineapple with coconut ice cream and ginger biscuits Dinner - Isle of Skye scallops chargrilled with fennel fritter, pea leaves lemon and dill dressing - Guinea fowl breast roasted with parsley and Parmesan pesto and fried Parmesan polenta; roasted vine tomatoes with salad of bitter leaves, celery and pinenuts - Cheeses with oatmeal - Lemon curd ice-cream with brown sugar palmier and candied peel Clarke on food "I've always been keen on freshness and vitality of ingredients and short cooking times on vegetables. I love salad because I think that its acidity cuts the richness of a lot of the food that it accompanies. For presentation there is nothing more beautiful than a mixture of different salads, lightly tossed with whatever dressing. "We usually have one chef taking care of each course, so if that was a main course they would be doing the meat, the sauce, the vegetable accompaniment. We are not Frenchified, with four or five chefs hanging around each dish. I hate squiggles and things on plates. "I can't stand the smell or look of shiitake mushrooms. Saffron I have a hard time with unless it's very delicate. It's too pungent and most chefs do not use it delicately enough. "I try hard to buy British. I don't really like anything from Holland. The cheeses are very good and the people are lovely, but it frightens me to think that every red pepper looks exactly the same. We'll buy a pineapple from the Ivory Coast, because they are excellent, but fundamentally menus are constructed around what is as local as possible."
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