Sally Clarke - Grande dame of cooking?

Sally ClarkeHer restaurant has been a landmark in London for almost twenty years but is the lady getting tired? Not a bit of it.

Walk down Kensington Church Street in the early morning you could be in any small, pleasant, country town. Traffic is pretty much non-existent, the air seems sweet and fresh and the shops and houses exude a kind of Dickensian charm with the occasional bow window and Georgian façade. Of course this is a very wealthy part of town, the arty smart people live in Camden Hill just next door, while to the East is Kensington Gardens itself no stranger to wealth and status.

One of the privileges of living here has to be Sally Clarke's Restaurant, Shop and Wholesale Bakery. It takes up two old shops, now knocked through and you can smell the coffee and bread before you get there. Inside the restaurant a man is ironing tablecloths in full view of the street while next door the bakery is doing a good trade in takeaway pastries and bread. It's all very English but as I found out later, much of what Sally does has been inspired by her experiences in California.

In person Sally is crisp, professional and a bit strict, her teaching experience showing in her accent and manner which one would guess is also the product of a respectable upbringing. Her long delicate fingers weave as she talks, occasionally tucking back a wisp of hair behind her designer glasses. A filofax sits on the table between us, a rather 80's touch and a symbol of efficiency.

Clarke's is, of course, famous for the 'no choice' menu, one that she pioneered from day one and is now much copied. At the time it violently divided people - for and against - and many said it would be the restaurant's downfall. Doesn't seem to have happened, does it?

'We're coming up to our twentieth year here,' she confirms. 'So it must work. This building was all we had when we started all those years ago, in fact what is now the shop next door was originally a launderette. Back in 1984 I wanted a place of my own and I parked outside this shop, looking at it for a while, trying to get a feel for the area and its potential. I took the lease and that was it, we were up and running.'

But let's go back to the days before 1984. Sally Clarke, trainee cook. What was that like?

'Well from school I went to technical college doing a business course in hotel and catering. Only about a third of that was actual cooking, the rest was accounts, staff law and that sort of thing. I loved the course but the cooking was a bit dull and classic' Not that she's against basic training. 'It's the only way to really learn,' she insists. 'There are no shortcuts to excellence. But I wanted more.'

'So I took myself off to the Cordon Bleu school in Paris. Unfortunately it wasn't quite what I had envisaged and I found myself doing much the same cooking as I had before.'

Paris however had more to offer. 'Being in Paris for the best part of a year was informative. I got to see the restaurants, not that I could afford to eat in many I mostly peered in at the windows,' she laughs. 'Rent wise I cooked for the family I was staying with in lieu of paying. Once I finished my course I went around Paris banging on doors offering my services as a commis for pretty much free. Two restaurants took me on, both very different, one was a brasserie and one was 'nouvelle cuisine' which then really was the new kid on the block. I loved it, I was like a sponge soaking it all up. And while I was in Paris I met a man who would change my life because a year later he called from California to say he and his girlfriend were opening a restaurant in Malibu and would I join them?'

American cuisine, I suggest, was not something to write home about and Sally agrees. 'At that time most American food in America I imagined to be giant steaks overhanging plates, surf n turf and all that. But knowing this chap I felt what he had in mind would be different and exciting as he would be taking his impetus from Nouvelle Cuisine. He was one of the first in California to break away.' And she discovered her instincts had been right.

'It was a new style, fresh way of cooking, 'she remembers fondly. 'It was cooking in a Meditteranean way that mirrored the Californian climate. No heavy sauces. Punchy flavours and punchy colours. California really surprised me with its wealth of produce. The quantity and the broad range and the markets. And organic growing was coming to the fore. '

And of course it was here that Alice Walters was building a reputation as a guru of what was almost an alternative way of running a restaurant - sourcing product from independent suppliers, demanding the best and getting it 101% 'right down to the last peppercorn' as Sally puts it. All this learning Sally brought back to the restaurant that bears her name.

So today here is Sally Clarke still in place where she began her eponymous restaurant and still garnering great reviews. Yes some people remark on the somewhat out of time décor, the touches that belong to bygone decades but why change what people like? For all the talk of the chilliness of the Clarke experience - a comment perhaps more about Sally's somewhat strict personae than the food which is flawlessly executed - this is a welcoming place especially downstairs where the open kitchen and the busy grill creates a nice air of bustle and professionalism.

With a more relaxed attitude toward the diners (it is now possible to decide what you might like to eat) but the same discipline in the kitchen, Clarke's looks set to continue to be a place of pilgrimage for the well-heeled residents of the area.

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