Patrick Clark was a genius in the kitchen. He showed an early penchant for cooking and became the first ‘celebrity’ Black chef – indeed, one of the early celebrity chefs of any race – while having a great influence on colleagues, ‘foodies’, casual diners and aspiring chefs – of every race. Sadly, he died way too early, in the prime of his life and career.
While Patrick paved the way for other Black haute cuisine chefs, there is still a dearth of them. Even recently, at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, of the 480 students, 35 to 40 were Black; and as recently as six years ago, of the 2,700 students at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., only 85 listed themselves as African-American, up from only 49, in 2001.
When asking White or Black chefs how many Black chefs they can name, who are not cooking ‘Soul Food’, the list is woefully small. Interviews with dozens of black chefs and restaurateurs revealed that struggles with family members, struggles with employers and struggles with themselves have all contributed to the scarcity. There is also a perception amongst many White chefs that Black ones only know how to cook "fried chicken and collard greens,' and oftentimes, even if he or she came out of a French kitchen, for instance, s/he ends up cooking Southern food." One such chef, Lance Whitney Knowling, a veteran of high-end Manhattan kitchens, who is now the chef and owner of Indigo Smoke in Montclair, N.J., said that several years ago, he received a call from the owner of an upscale restaurant in New Jersey to whom he had sent a cover letter and résumé.
The owner said, "I'd have to have somebody like you," Mr. Knowling recalled the restaurateur saying. "I couldn't have a Black guy or a Latin guy back there, because it would make my customers uncomfortable." When Mr. Knowling said he was Black, the restaurateur said, "You're kidding." No, Mr. Knowling said. The conversation grew awkward, and the restaurateur apologized. While very happy with the success of Indigo Smoke, he still points out the irony of his own situation, saying, "I'm classically French trained. I wanted to be the French chef, and that's what I studied for years and years, and now I run a barbecue restaurant – an upscale barbecue restaurant and Soul Food restaurant."
The point is that many aspiring Black chefs often still find few mentors or peers, especially now that Patrick Clark has died.
Patrick Clark was born in March 1955, in Brooklyn, New York. According to a longtime friend, he was “different from other children. While his friends spent their allowances on baseball cards and movies, he saved his money to buy cream cheese, determined, by the age of nine, to make the perfect cheesecake.” Patrick’s interest in cooking began almost as early as his memories of smell. From his mother's kitchen, wafted the scents of seasoned fried chicken, pork chops, and other ‘soul food’ delicacies; and when he was old enough, the young Patrick would visit his father's kitchens. His father, Melvin Clark, was a chef with Restaurant Associates in Manhattan, and worked in the kitchens of Charley O's, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and the Four Seasons. Given his bloodlines, there is little wonder that he aspired to be a chef, and whence his first influences came. Despite his father’s warnings that being a chef was extremely hard work, Patrick pursued his dream.
So, he enrolled in the hotel and restaurant curriculum at New York City Technical College (his father’s alma mater), from which he earned an Associate of Arts Degree. Then to hone is craft, he entered the culinary arts program at what is now Great Britain’s, Bournemouth & Poole College; and subsequently put his training into practice with an apprenticeship at Braganza restaurant in London.
|Bournemouth & Poole College|
Following his English stint, he mastered his skills in France,
under the coveted tutelage of chef, Michel Guérard, at his three-star restaurant, Eugenie-les-Bains. Recalling that experience, Patrick said, "It was mind blowing for an African-American kid from Brooklyn to go to France. The respect for food, in its raw state, and the intensity of the preparation – that’s what stuck with me."
''Customers would rave about the food, and I'd say, 'why don't you meet the chef','' said Keith McNally, one of the original co-owners of Odeon, adding, ''and they would be startled [because he was Black].'' Three years later, buoyed by Odeon’s success, Keith, and his partners, opened a second restaurant, Cafe Luxembourg, on the Upper West Side, so Patrick then had two kitchens to run.
However, even while abroad, Patrick never forgot his cooking ‘roots’. His mother's down-home cooking and his father’s menus, combined with his European training, helped him create his own exotic, ‘New American’ cuisine, including signature dishes such as, tuna with black-eyed pea and artichoke salad, and white chocolate banana cream pie. Patrick also fulfilled a lifelong dream of launching his own restaurant, the highly regarded Metro, in 1988. Sadly, it closed two years later, due to post-Recession economic woes.
The sunshine of the West Coast lured Patrick to be the Head Chef at Bice, in Beverly Hills. At first, diners were perplexed that a French-trained chef would come to work at an Italian restaurant. But Patrick soon made his mark on the menu, and ‘those in the know’ knew to order the specials, which weren't always Italian but were almost always mouth-wateringly delicious. Ruth Reichl, The Los Angeles Times restaurant critic at the time, wrote, "Clark is one of the rare chefs whose food is both straightforward and sophisticated," simultaneously awarding him 3 Stars. Patrick then opened the kitchen of a second Bice, in San Diego, California.
|Bice San Diego|
Armed with his 3-Stars accolade, ‘Angelinos’ expected Patrick to open his own restaurant, but this time, California was experiencing its own financial problems, and he and his family missed family and friends on the East Coast.
Patrick then moved, with his family, back to the East Coast to take over the kitchen at the very prestigious, Hay-Adams Hotel, in Washington, D.C., which is just across the street from the White House, and where he cooked for the likes of Heads of State to Poet Laureates. When he first arrived, however, it was not without controversy. Patrick’s independent streak made its mark, when he decided that he did not care for the way the cobb salad was served at the Hay-Adams – all chopped up and thrown together – so he changed it, initiating many complaints from ‘traditionalists’, who preferred the old version. Patrick’s response was to remove it from the menu, prompting a boycott and a petition drive. "I really feel if you don't take the risk and take certain things off the menu that people are used to, people will never be ready for a change," he told the Washington Post, shortly after the controversy, adding, "[Washington's] an old city with some very distinct dining habits. I would like to break some of them."
|Al Fresco Dining at The Hay-Adams Hotel|
And break them, he did. In fact, President Clinton and (now Secretary of State) Hillary Rodham Clinton became frequent visitors to the Hay-Adams, and were so taken with his unique, culinary style, that they asked him to interview for the Head Chef position at The White House. He was one of four candidates; but decided to remove himself from the pool because he would have had to work exclusively for the White House and would not have been able to engage in his charity work, which was very important to him.
Patrick worked with his very good friend, Chef Joe Randall, on projects such as events for the National Council of Negro Women, and helped to coordinate the judges for the "Real-Men-Cook" Annual Gala. Patrick was also a founding member of Board of Trustees for the Taste of Heritage Foundation, a United Negro College Fund’s annual fundraiser, which raises scholarship funds for African-American culinary arts students. Those were just a few of his many, community outreach projects.
|Chefs Joe Randall and Patrick Clark|
In May of 1994, Patrick was named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic Region at the annual James Beard Awards. Thus anointed by the food world’s Oscars (and already the recipient of the distinguished Grand Master Chef Award in 1988 and 1989 (as well as 1988’s Chef in America National Medallion), Patrick found himself fielding offers from all over the world.
In 1995, Patrick decided to stay on the East Coast and accept an offer in his home city of New York, to revive the culinary reputation of the world-famous, magical, highest-grossing-restaurant-in-America, Tavern on the Green, in Central Park, as its Executive Chef; and where more than 1,500 meals were served per day, presenting an unusual challenge to Patrick, who was used to smaller kitchens.
|Tavern on the Green|
Revive it, he did, once again attracting hungry, discriminating New Yorkers and tourists. In the summer of 1996, Patrick introduced Tavern on the Green's first ever outdoor barbecue grill. Later that year, the father of five created a diverse and adventurous children's menu. "Children often determine where people go to eat nowadays," Patrick told Florence Fabricant, of the New York Times. "Why not let them eat like Mommy and Daddy, with a regular three-course menu instead of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some other slap in the face?"
While Patrick was one of the first Black celebrity chefs, he did not let racial issues affect him. ''He didn't feel there was prejudice against him,'' said Stephen Moise, the Executive Sous Chef at Tavern. ''But, he could see how young, African-American kids could feel that there was a lot against them, and he wanted to be an example of somebody who succeeded by working hard and believing in himself.'' Bruce Wynn, a younger African-American who was a pastry chef at Tavern, said, “Mr. Clark couldn't help being inspirational because, even with his rigorous French training, his heritage still shone through. He lived the flavor that he grew up on, and he spread that flavor. ''He was very demanding, sometimes harsh, but he was constant. And the flavor never wavered.''
Tragically, Patrick had to leave his post at Tavern on the Green, in November 1997, after he was found to have congestive heart failure. He entered Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center to await a heart transplant; and was so disappointed by the poor hospital food, that he snuck in his own cooking equipment and ingredients to have proper food prepared for him. The transplant never took place because Patrick was also found to have amyloidosis, a plasma disorder, which ruled it out. He died in February 1998, at the way-too-young age of 42, leaving behind his wife of eighteen years, as well as five children, including his son, Preston, who is now a chef at El Paseo, in San Francisco, California; and who is truly making a name for himself, in his own right, becoming the third generation of Clark men to tickle the tastebuds of delighted diners, the world over.
Patrick was so busy cooking for others, that he never published a cookbook, but one of his culinary ‘fans’ did. Check out “Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine,” By Charlie Trotter, to really see how Patrick could sizzle. Meanwhile, he did publish recipes in magazines. Here is a lovely Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Garlic Croutons Recipe from Food & Wine Magazine. Enjoy!
Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Garlic Croutons
By Patrick Clark
2 ½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3 garlic cloves – 2 minced and 1 halved
2 quarts chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 ½ cups heavy cream
Twelve ½ -inch-thick diagonal slices from a sourdough baguette
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Peel and thickly slice the Jerusalem artichokes and transfer to a large bowl of cold water mixed with 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice.
Melt the butter in a large enameled cast-iron casserole. Add the chopped onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring often, until the onion is translucent, about 7 minutes.
Add the minced garlic cloves and cook, stirring, for 1 minute longer.
Drain the Jerusalem artichokes and add them to the casserole along with the chicken stock,1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper.
Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to moderate and simmer until the Jerusalem artichokes are very tender, about 35 minutes.
Working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender and purée until smooth. Return the soup to the casserole. (Make ahead: The soup can be refrigerated for up to 1 day.)
Bring the soup to a boil over high heat and cook until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the heavy cream.
Season the soup with the remaining 2 teaspoons lemon juice, salt, and white pepper; keep warm.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the baguette slices with the vegetable oil and toast for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Rub each crouton on one side with the halved garlic clove.Ladle the soup into a tureen or shallow bowls. Garnish with the garlic croutons and minced chives.