Absolutely chats to Sally Clarke as she juggles reopening the restaurant with the creation of Shop No 2
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An Interview With Sally Clarke
What’s next for you and your business?
A We have created a new online delivery service, providing Clarke’s treats to central London postcodes, using pedal bikes and recyclable boxes. Rather stuck in my laptop is my third book. It was on the back burner for the past year but we are confident that it will be on the shelves soon. And last month we signed on our second shop. We had been searching for a perfect site for many years – and although signing in the midst of a pandemic was perhaps not the most sensible thing to do, we fell head-over-heels for this sunny corner of Westbourne Grove and Portobello Road. We are so excited to be in the same neck of the woods as not only the Notting Hill Fish Shop, but also our friend Sir Paul Smith, the lovely team at Core restaurant, Bill and Natalie Granger’s wonderful eatery – and Gold just up the street from us. From here we will be able to offer breads, cakes and pastries, amazing take away meals, salads, soups and sandwiches and much more. There will even be space to perch while sipping an espresso with a croissant – and perhaps a mug of soup and a toasted cheese sandwich.
You’re about to reopen the restaurant. Will anything have changed?
After 35 years we had to close our doors in mid-March, along with every other restaurant in Britain. Since then we have been busy getting ready to reopen this month – luckily for us, our tables are beautifully spaced anyway. The safety of our customers and staff remains paramount, so regular sanitising will of course be maintained and staff will be temperature-checked on a daily basis. However, we do need to retain a sensible balance, so that customers will still feel that they are at Clarke’s and that the welcome, great menu and lovely service haven’t changed. Our amazing suppliers are ready to send us fish and meat from Cornwall, Norfolk, Sussex and further afield and while the menus will be slightly pared down in terms of complexity, the essence will remain. Simplicity, seasonality and freshness through and through.
You recently celebrated 35 years in Kensington Church Street, and the shop moved to a separate site opposite the restaurant. Why the move?
After we received planning permission to expand the restaurant into the original shop space, by chance two of the antique shops in Campden Street were closing, so we were able to secure the leases relatively quickly. The extra space for the restaurant allowed us to update the layout, creating a private dining room and a beautiful Bar Room, and the Garden room which overlooks our little herb garden at the rear. This all happened a while ago now – but more recently we took over the fabulous corner site directly opposite us, which used to be Robert Kime’s showroom. This Corner Shop is linked to our main shop and is open from 7.30am Monday to Saturday, serving coffee, pastries and filled sandwiches. Our fabulous selection of bread is displayed in the window on an antique brass bread rack which we found in France some years ago. It’s wonderful to be able to put this to good use.
How has your clientele changed over the years? And how has your food changed?
When I first opened in 1984, our clientele was very local and very Kensington! I had worked in California for five years, so I had many American contacts – we seemed to attract an international crowd too. We have never been a cliquey restaurant and I think people feel comfortable coming to us for any occasion, at any time, whether they have booked weeks in advance or just strolled by.
The food has certainly evolved but what I have never lost sight of is seasonality. To me the biggest sin on a menu is to include ingredients that have no place in that season. Ours are led by what the farmers and fishermen offer us. My job, along with our chefs, is simply to put the ingredients together in a balanced, pleasing and delicious way.
Clarke’s famously used to offer a set menu with no choice. When and why did that change?
I had a vision to open a simple restaurant, offering simple food which reflected only what was best and freshest in the market on the day. My career thoughts dating back to my teenage years were to offer one set menu each night without choices – and this idea was cemented even further on my many visits to Chez Panisse in California. Over the years, however, this format was becoming a little restrictive – and we were at risk of becoming a ‘special occasion’ restaurant. We therefore started to relax the menu a little, and now we offer a small daily changing selection of dishes, appealing to all tastes.
Bread is a huge part of your business. How did that come about? And how big is the wholesale business now?
We baked our own breads from the first month 35 years ago. Using a basic whole wheat and honey recipe from my mother, we adjusted the ingredients slightly each day, adding apricots or hazelnuts or even raisins and rosemary – (still one of our customers’ favourites). We used to bake overnight in the restaurant ovens and within a few years we had grown the bread production to include outside customers such as Neal’s Yard Dairy and Monmouth Coffee. We soon had to move our baker and his equipment to a small unit just off Ladbroke Grove, from where we grew even more. 25 years on, we are now in even larger premises in North Kensington which includes not only the bread production but also a chilled croissant room, the cake room, biscuit and chocolate truffle rooms plus our Production Kitchen which creates the wonderful array of take home dishes sold in our shop. Our Wholesale Bakery delivers to well over 100 restaurants, cafes, shops and catering companies daily, with not only breads and pastries but also sweet and savoury tarts, biscuits and granola.
Clarke’s will always be associated with Lucian Freud. What are your memories of him?
Mr Freud lived close by and would come to us for breakfast and lunch – he was often seen in our shop, his favourite treat being a huge pain au raisin or our home-made nougat which he managed to consume all by himself in one day – he certainly had a sweet tooth. He worked tirelessly and would often take family or friends, or the person who was sitting for him out for a meal during breaks. We would do our best to keep his visits as private as possible – he preferred not to be noticed, keeping himself to himself while being able to observe others around him.
Do you have a signature dish?
A I have been asked this question so many times over the years and my answer is always the same. Depending on the weather, the occasion or the time of year, it has to be appropriate. So, in September perhaps a late summer salad of gloriously ripe tomatoes with ripped purple and green basil leaves, perhaps sliced red onion, Nicoise olives, lashings of olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. We use burrata a lot and this creamy, rich mozzarella is a perfect accompaniment. Dessert, for me, has again to be something smacking of the season. Perhaps a Clarke’s trifle made with luscious creme Anglaise with Genoese sponge cake and layers of late summer fruits, even a little damson sauce. Topped with a sprinkling of pistachio nuts, this is my dream dessert – it is hardly ever off the menu.
Clarke’s Restaurant: 124 Kensington Church Street, W8; 020 7221 9225
Sally Clarke Shops: 121 Kensington Church Street, W8; 283 Westbourne Grove, W11
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