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In conversation with Sally Clarke

Published 30 March 2020

Some chefs might gather attention for a stratospheric rise, while not managing to establish a sustainable business – they’re all over the media one minute, and nowhere the next – but there is a great deal to be said for the quietly successful restaurateur. One such person is Sally Clarke. Jason Atherton, among others, refers to her as “Britain’s Alice Waters”. As her restaurant Clarke’s celebrates 35 years in business, Lisa Markwell meets a true role model for the industry. Photographs by Harriet Clare

I first ate at Clarke’s at least 25 years ago and I remember being really surprised by the no-choice dinner. In the intervening time, the world has caught up with you, particularly the British scene. I just wonder how you feel about what was it like then, compared to now?

It was the only way that I wanted to open a restaurant. My friends, family and everybody around me said, “Are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do? Yes, I get the set menu idea but surely you will have a choice as well,” and I said, “No. The whole point is that we will showcase what is best and freshest at the market that day, like French housewives did in those days.” That’s the format that I grew up seeing during summer holidays with my family. That was the menu you were presented with – and the following night or week it would have been something different.

I thought, how can huge menus possibly have the same freshness and the same level of integrity in every dish, with the same focus on every ingredient? Then, the early eighties, there were many, many restaurants with huge menus and they were all dog-eared so they’d have had the same menu for months, if not years. What
I wanted was something fresh, and new, and I wanted all the customers coming through the door to be presented with the same menu. There’s always something that we could adjust, if needed. And then we just opened the doors. No PR, no advertising, no press… I didn’t know what marketing was.

You trained at catering college, and the Cordon Bleu, learned classic cuisine, and preparation for restaurant life, but what you opened was very different to the norm.

Straight from school, I went to college in Croydon and I studied for two years, centered on catering, hotels and restaurants. I remember the first class was how to present half a grapefruit.

I was told that I had to put a glacé cherry on this half a grapefruit and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not putting a glacé cherry on my half, I’m putting a sprig of mint,” and I was reprimanded for that. That was not how they do it!

Do you feel that you were a pioneer of the no-choice menu and hyper-seasonality that’s now hugely popular in Britain?

I hope I was part of it… It was walking into Chez Panisse in Berkeley for the first time in 1979, when I realised that this crazy idea of offering one menu, with no choice, could actually work. I’d never heard of Chez Panisse and I’d never heard of Alice Waters when I arrived. It had just been this little niggling idea that I’d had in my mind since the age of about 15. I thought, ‘If I ever have a restaurant, I will be offering one menu, that’s it.’

Did you know this particular part of London, or the sort of people who might be coming? It’s an idea that wouldn’t necessarily have flourished in every bit ofLondon.

I didn’t know Notting Hill Gate terribly well, but I often sat outside the [Kensington Church Street] site in my little Morris 100, watching the sort of customers who were wandering about… and it was one man and a dog really.

The antique shops were taking over, but there was no life really this side of Notting Hill Gate. I had been living in California for five years before I opened, and every year I would come back to London and put my finger in the air or test the water. The closer it got to 1983, when I did come back, the more liveliness I felt there was in Notting Hill Gate. There were people with builder’s vans outside the house. I thought, ‘Well, this means that people are investing in these huge houses, which had been multi flats up until then. Maybe there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel and perhaps this might be the sort of area that could work.’

We were very lucky. We had lovely reviews by Lindsey Bareham, Paul Levy, Drew Smith, all in the first year. It just snowballed.

Famously, Lucian Freud was a regular at Clarke’s. That must have been wonderful, and I see some of his works on the wall in the restaurant too…

He was just amazing. We loved him being here and we kept him in a little discreet corner whenever he was here.

We protected him and I think he felt comfortable here. He ate practically every breakfast and practically every lunch with us.

Notting Hill Gate has changed a lot over the years. Have you noticed lots of changes in your clientele?

We have. We started with a very local Kensington crowd, who I think took a little bit of time to ‘get’ us. Of course, we had the open-plan kitchen downstairs and half of our seating was in front of the kitchen. I remember very well dressed Kensington types coming in and saying, “I’d never eat in the kitchen at home, so why should I eat at the kitchen when I go out?!” We lost a few possible customers that way. And we were one of the first restaurants to ban smoking.

We’re very lucky. I always say that the regular customer could be somebody who comes to us three days a week, but on the other hand, it could be someone who comes to us every time they come to London. That might be once a year, but that’s still a regular customer to me.

The restaurant has changed and evolved over time.

We certainly have, yes. I felt in the early nineties, Clarke’s was becoming a little bit of a special occasion restaurant. People would book weeks and weeks in advance and come with such high expectations. I wanted it to become more of a place where people could walk by and drop in, come and have a glass of wine and a bowl of risotto, or a just a salad and a cup of coffee – and it’s worked.

We now have a slightly smaller set menu, just three courses in the evening, with maybe five first courses, and five mains, which is completely turning my original idea on its head. We still change the menu every day. It’s still fresh ingredients, of course, depending on what we’re getting: fish from Cornwall and wonderful organic lamb from Wales.

I know you’re still very involved in day-to-day work, such as what’s at its peak coming in to the kitchen.

The kitchen team feeds me with their ideas, I do a little tweaking, we try and get the balance right together, and I devise the menus with the chefs every day. I type the menus, I do the wording, I check the spelling, I try to get the grammar right, try to get the spacing right. It’s very important to me. It kills me when I see something that’s been misspelled. It’s the biggest part of my day, actually, getting the menus right.

One of the things that sings out from your book, the Clarke’s website, and the menu is a distinct voice. “It’s the last of the raspberries,” or on something that you sell in the shop, “You could pretend that this was your own,” or, “We’ve got more fish n our fish cake, because that’sthe way we like it.” Is that sort ofthing that important to you? It’syour name over the door, quite literally.

It’s very important to me. I’m not as clever as the Jason Athertons and the other guys in our industry who can manage to open restaurant after restaurant, and fly about the world. I just can’t do that. I’m very happy with everything (nearly) under one roof.

Yes, we have a restaurant and a shop and we’re just about to extend our shop over the road. We have a bakery, and a production kitchen, and they’re just 10 minutes’ drive from here.

I think it’s important that I’m seen at the door greeting and seating. I take people’s coats, I pour their water, I discuss the menu at the table, I clear their plate, I made sure that, for instance, the kitchen porter’s wife is out of hospital and fine.

I feel, even though I’ve got 120 staff company-wide now, and it’s a huge 24- hour business because of our bakery, I still feel that it’s a family-run business and that I’m still the face that the customers and my staff know.

Do you pay heed to what’s going on in the broader restaurant world?

No, I’ve never been a follower. I think I’ve always just wanted to paddle my own canoe and if people don’t want to come along behind me or walk in through our front door, then so be it. I’m on Instagram and I love to see what other people are doing, but I don’t necessarily look at it for inspiration.

Kitchens and the visibility of women chefs has changed inordinately in the 30+ years that you’ve been around. There’s still not parity, but how do you feel that’s changed and do you think that it’s important to have the distinction? For instance, should we have a magazine which is just focused on women in the industry, or should it be allmerged? What’s your view?

I’ve always said that there have always been women in the kitchen. They’re just not the type to scream and shout about being in the kitchen or doing whatever they’re doing. They don’t go on television at the drop of a hat. They’ve always been quietly beavering away in the background. When I opened, my head chef was a woman, my general manager was a woman, my restaurant manager was a woman, and we had two Brazilian women kitchen porters. I think probably in the early days, 60-70% of my staff were women.

Was that a conscious decision?

No, not at all. I’ve always said that if an elephant walked through the door and could do the job beautifully, I would hire it. I think when I was running the kitchen, it was a lightness of touch that I was looking for and someone who understood that waste was a bad thing. Using yesterday’s product before we pile into today’s for instance… Sensible things to do. Despite the publicity around it, food waste avoidance was, I think, what they were doing in caves! It just makes sense.

Can you foresee a time when you won’t be at the restaurant every day?

Yes. I broke my hip four months ago and I wasn’t here for a full month. The kitchen and the dining room both ran beautifully, and I did lots of stuff on my laptop. I was crawling up the wall with boredom, however. The team is perfectly capable of running it without me if they ever need to.

I’m not ready to hand over the restaurant yet, though. It’s all about the team: my restaurant manager’s been with me for 26 years. I just shook hands with one of my drivers, who’s been with me 15 years and he drives all through the night for the bakery. I’ve had kitchen porters for 30 years. My head pastry chef has worked with me for 29 years. She left to have a couple of babies and came back, part time. I’m blessed with a lot of wonderful people who’ve been with me a long time. There’s a lot of coming and going, but the core is the same… I’m very, very lucky.

Do you go back to California?

Every year. Alice [Waters] is godmother to my son Samuel, and she’s my touchstone. I have her on my shoulder every day of my life, and she tells me what I’m doing wrong, and when I’m getting it right.

This article was first published in Issue 22 of the CODE Quarterly magazine. To read the digital version, please click here

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