Sally Clarke runs the classiest restaurant in Notting Hill, now in its 37th year. She is also universally loved.
These two things are connected. It’s not just the perfection of the menu—there’s something magical about the way you’re treated at Clarke’s. Very often it will be Clarke herself opening the door, taking your coat, or clearing the next table ready for service.
“I always felt we should direct ourselves to each table as an individual,” she says, Zooming in from the dining room at Clarke’s just before evening service. “It could be an American tourist that wants to talk about the Queen, or a young man taking his potential mother-in-law out for dinner. It could be a couple on the brink of a divorce; it could be a first date—every table needs to be treated differently.”
Clarke grew up in Surrey. Her father was an auctioneer; her mother was a gardener, cook, and housewife. “There was nothing grand about my heritage,” she says, but from the age of 12 she’d wanted to be involved in food and wine, and had a dream for her perfect restaurant. “It would have one menu, no choice,” she says. “It would change every day depending on what was in the market, or was picked in the garden, and it would be balanced in every possible way.”
The landscape for women in the culinary arts at that time was tough. At age 20, she moved to Paris and trained at Le Cordon Bleu. Afterward, she worked as an unpaid commis in several restaurants there.
“In one, I remember being patted on the backside and pushed into the cold room with the head chef as a joke by the rest of the kitchen staff,” she recalls. “It’s still very much a man’s world out there, but there are now lots of women beavering away in the background. They just get on with it.”
After Clarke finished her training in Paris, she traveled to New York and then to California. “I’d never heard of Chez Panisse or its owner, Alice Waters, but as soon as I put my hand on that door handle, I knew it was my touchstone,” she says. “I looked at the beautiful flowers and bowls of fruit in the hall, read the no-choice, seasonal menu, and everything fell into place. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, Well, if it works this beautifully in California, maybe I could make it work in London.”
“It’s still very much a man’s world out there, but there are now lots of women beavering away in the background. They just get on with it.”
At the time, the community in London she chose to serve wasn’t known for its culinary excellence. Why Notting Hill? “I spent about a year walking around London trying to work out where to settle, and nothing felt quite right, but then I got to know this area. It was fairly run-down at that time, but I found a restaurant for sale in a street filled with estate agents, and I sat outside it in my car to watch the sort of people who were walking by. It was pretty much one man and a dog. There was nothing exciting here at all, but I just felt there was an energy. There was scaffolding up everywhere, and there were builders’ trucks. It was a moment when things were definitely changing.”
Clarke is deeply private and reserved, and yet she put her full name above the door of her restaurant. A surprising move at a time when female chefs were less conspicuous than they are now, and naming a restaurant after one was a pretty radical business move. Why did she do it? “I just couldn’t think of anything else to call it,” she says. “Even when I wrote my first book, I called it Sally Clarke’s Book because I couldn’t think of another title.”
Naming things is clearly not her forte, although being consistent is. Her second book, Sally Clarke’s Ingredients, is all about ingredients. Even the dedication says, “To Samuel (again).”
Does she see dining as a form of theater? “Yes, absolutely. Once the candles are lit, and the lighting is appropriate to the time of year, it’s the welcome at the door—and making sure nobody leaves without a thank-you. It’s important from the first second to the last.” Who taught her this? “Absolutely no idea, although when I worked at Michael’s in Los Angeles, I learned a great deal about how not to do something. I loved the owner to bits, but there was so much of his bravura at the table.”
Although her practices are now considered almost the gold standard, it wasn’t always like that. “When we first opened, we attracted a lot of well-heeled customers from all over London,” she recalls. “They’d walk in and say, ‘I never eat in the kitchen at home. Why would I dream of eating in the kitchen when I go out?’ An open-plan kitchen wasn’t really done then, and we had a ‘no cigar and pipes’ rule, which upset a lot of people. But I stuck to my guns. I knew what I wanted, and little by little we attracted the sort of people who became a family. We now have not just the children of our original customers but their adult grandchildren eating here. As I’ve got older, our customers have definitely got younger. It’s amazing to me, and lovely.”
Clarke’s empire now includes two shops, an online business with deliveries by electric bikes, and a bakery which supplies Selfridges, Eurostar, and Tate Modern with its perfect sourdoughs. She’s known in the industry as “the Queen of Seasonal Eating,” and the restaurant is more popular than ever. Why?
“I boil it down to the art of the table—it was so, so important to me to get that balance right,” she says. “The way it’s set, the sense of place, the sense of the moment, and what you put on the table entirely depending on the season. Alice Waters is still my mentor. Every day I wonder, Would Alice do it like this?”
As befits a remarkable restaurateur, she has had remarkable customers. Her most loyal was the artist Lucian Freud, whom she fed daily for decades. Lucian was my father’s brother, but they didn’t speak for the last 60 years of their lives. His name wasn’t spoken in our house when I grew up, and I never knew him.
I have to confess that one reason I wanted to talk to Sally was that I thought I might get to understand my uncle a little through her experience. She first met him in the late 80s, when he bought the house three doors down from her restaurant and shop.
“He was working from Leigh Bowery at the time, and in the afternoons they would come to the little café at the back of the shop,” says Clarke. “Then, as the years went on, he started to come for breakfast, but I think gradually he felt uncomfortable as more and more people were coming in because they knew he might be here and would try to talk to him. So little by little, we moved him from the café to the restaurant, which was obviously empty before lunch. After that, he would have his breakfast there every morning, mostly with his assistant, David Dawson. He would use it almost as a salon…. I mean, he would entertain his guests there, family, people that were sitting for him, old friends, new friends.” (She is too discreet to say, but those “old friends, new friends” would include Mick Jagger, Kate Moss, Bono, Stella McCartney, Jerry Hall, and Frank Auerbach.)
“We loved keeping him private, almost wrapped in cotton wool,” says Clarke. “He would then go back to his house and work. More often than not he’d come to us for lunch as well; occasionally, he’d come to us for dinner too. I do think that we were instrumental in keeping him alive and well for as long as he lived. We fed him every day.”
I grew up unable to say his name at home without hearing a sharp intake of breath, so this information is delicious to me. What did he eat?
“He had the biggest pain aux raisins every breakfast with a revolting-looking cup of tea—Earl Grey with gallons of milk in it. It was the most awful color, but he loved it. Lunch was always fish, and in the afternoon he would come to the shop and buy a whole bar of nougat that would last a normal family a week, but he would eat it in a day.”
But then, in 2005, their relationship changed, she recalls. “One day, David came in and said, ‘I have to ask you something very serious.’ I thought he was going to tell me that Mr. Freud didn’t want to come to us anymore, that we’d done something wrong, we’d offended him or something awful had happened. But he said, ‘He would like you to sit for him.’ It didn’t take me a second to say I would, and I did. I sat for about two years, and his painting of me was the last head and shoulders he ever did. It was very special—really special.”
Clarke would sit for Freud in silence for two or three hours, generally in the mornings, in his dayroom at the back of his house, devoid of electric light, overlooking the garden.
“I felt as if I was giving almost as much to him as he was giving into the canvas,” says Clarke. “It felt like a two-way street. But I did write a diary every night, a paragraph on what had happened during the sitting and what conversations we had during the break times. He would talk about Rudolf Nureyev, Princess Margaret, and Greta Garbo, or his time in Soho. I remember him telling me about a dare he did when he was seven or eight in Berlin. He would run straight across the busy road without looking where the cars were, and just hope for the best—right in front of his nanny, as a dare.”
The diary was written for Clarke’s son, Samuel; it will never be published. But I couldn’t help but ask: Did he ever mention my father?
It turned out that he did. But as a mark of respect to the most loyal of chefs de cuisine, and to the attitude which has made this maven so beloved to her clientele, I will have to draw a polite and diplomatic veil. What I will say is that Sally Clarke is a most responsible and remarkable restaurateur, and a beautiful chef for all seasons.
Emma Freud is an award-winning columnist, script editor, and film producer currently living in Los Angeles. She has written for The Telegraph, The Times of London, and The Guardian, and her film credits include script editor for Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Most recently, she co-produced and was script editor on Yesterday