I ACTUALLY wanted to be a musician,” says Claire Clark. Unfortunately, her flute and violin playing wasn’t up to scratch. Happily for us, it meant she became the world’s best female patissiere, soon to open up a decadent cake shop – think champagne and chaises longues – in London.
“My mother cooked everything,” says Clark, recently back from a four-year stint at the three Michelin-starred French Laundry in Napa, California, and now sitting with me over her very own afternoon tea at Harvey Nicks. “We never even had chocolate biscuits from a packet. She made flapjacks, chocolate cakes, jam tarts, little choux eclairs; she’d do it all with her coal Aga. I remember her keeping meringues in the Aga overnight and then sticking them together with cream.”
With a mother like that and a predilection for baking herself, Clark’s alternative profession was soon clear, and she headed off to catering school. “I knew I wanted to do pastry, not kitchen.” After a job in the kitchen at Crockfords in Curzon Street, she landed a pastry job at the Ritz, working 8AM-2AM (not wholly different from her current hours), and producing a good deal of strawberry tarts – this was the Eighties, after all. “It was so glamorous, I was just a little country girl,”?says Clark, who still has pink cheeks, a fresh face and a straightforwardly friendly air. She went on to help launch the Bluebird, the Wolseley, set up pastry at the House of Commons and taught for three years at Cordon Bleu. “Eventually, after 20 years in London, I thought: ‘What am I doing?’”
Which was when Thomas Keller, a superstar in the US and the man behind the French Laundry, hired her (she had to make six different types of petits fours, two chocolates, a brasserie-style dessert and a chocolate tart on several occasions to get the job). Her specialities included the likes of lemon posset with divine, thin-skinned Meyer lemons and popcorn sherbet.
And here we are, with by far the most original afternoon tea I’ve ever had – largely because it bears the imprint of her time in the US. There is bubblegum pavlova; peanut butter s’more cake (my favourite); Battenburg; Jaffa cake truffle; lemon madeira, mango mousse and violet eclair. This is the second time Clark has seen these today – she made them that morning. Living temporarily with a friend in Neasden, North London, Clark is up in time to wait for a 5AM bus to central London. A friend lets her use the spacious facilities at the Hilton Metropole on the Edgware Road for her morning bake, then she transports the goodies to Harvey Nicks’ Fifth Floor, where she has a pop-up patisserie too (marshmallows, macaroons, popcorn, brownies and so on, all beautifully packaged and made by her).
With so many afternoon teas now in London – everyone from the Mandeville in Marylebone to the Dean Street Townhouse serves it with fanfare – why is Clark bothering? “It’s so same-as. Everyone does tea on a cake stand. It’s always millefeuille and tarts. Nobody ever really revamped or redesigned it – I feel the same way about pastry shops. So I’m trying to think differently and to present a different flavour profile.” After the sandwiches – which come on mini bagels and focaccia and even a hot dog bun rather than the usual cut bread – I can vouch for the difference of flavour profile. No cake stands in sight, either: we had neon orange square slabs to nibble off.
Apart from the American element, the other striking part of Clark’s tea is the nostalgia aspect – the cakes actually appear on the menu as “Nostalgic Cakes”. The home-made Jaffa cakes and the snowballs of her childhood were the motivation – “I wanted to do things that were fun.” She has more than succeeded and we’re lucky to have her back. Now. Let us eat cake.
The Claire Clark Afternoon Tea runs until 10 Oct at Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor and costs from £35. To book, call 020 7235 5250. Her patisserie will be open until 17 Nov.