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Few people would admit that, after years in the public gaze, their image needs a facelift. But that is precisely the conclusion chef Sally Clarke reached three years ago when she began a radical overhaul of her restaurant and shop, a fixture of Kensington Church Street since she first opened there 29 years ago.
In January this year her shop moved 100 yards across the road to Campden Street. Then in August, the former shop became The Bar Room, serving breakfast, light lunches and evening meals, and the restaurant shut for a month.
The result? The main dining room has been transformed by the removal of its cumbersome 1980s air conditioning, while the new Garden Room on the ground floor is a particularly enticing space in which to eat. Bathed in natural light, it boasts five Lucian Freud drawings (the artist lived just a few doors away and was a regular), linen tablecloths and Gatti wicker chairs.
It was here that I caught up with Clarke who, despite the continuous self-deprecation – “we never seem to get our cappuccinos quite right” – and the miles she scampers between the kitchen, dining room, shop and bakery does not seem to have lost her sense of humour.
She has also stuck firmly to the principles that first inspired her. In December 1984 Clarke’s opened with a no-choice, four-course menu for £17.50 that was also determinedly seasonal.
“From when I was 14, travelling through France with my parents and seeing these simple, honest menus in the bistros, I became convinced that not everything on long, complex menus could be fresh. And if it couldn’t be, why bother?” she explains. (That said, the opening night could have been smoother: the lamb dish was served without a sauce because Clarke had forgotten to make the stock the day before.)
Several years cooking for Michael McCarty at Michael’s in Santa Monica, California reinforced her belief in simple, good food – as did a visit to Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ seminal restaurant in Berkeley.
McCarty also shaped Clarke’s thinking in a different area by warning her not to take partners into her restaurant. Instead, she turned to her family; initially to her father, for a loan she paid off within 18 months; then to her mother Sheila, who, at the age of 86, still drives up from Surrey at 3.30am every Monday to buy flowers at Covent Garden and then arranges them in the restaurant; and latterly her husband, art dealer John Morton Morris, who oversaw the property transformation.
There have been other big changes too: since 1985, Clarke has gone from baking just enough bread for her restaurant to employing 20 bakers, who now work round the clock to supply 100 restaurants in London, as well as Eurostar. Alongside them are a team of four who make her jams, pickles, quiches and chocolate truffles.
The irony that the two principles she first staked her reputation on 29 years ago are now hugely fashionable is not lost on Clarke. Yet while her addiction to using seasonal produce remains unchanged, reading the menu it becomes obvious that, as with any skilled artisan, age and experience bring a lightness of touch. It takes confidence to know when not to interfere too much – when to compose a dessert described simply as “soft vanilla meringue with buttermilk sorbet and the last of this season’s raspberries”.
Sadly, this dish had just been taken off the menu the week we ate there but there were numerous compensations. A twice-cooked cheese soufflé; a plump chicken breast from farmer Reg Johnson in Lancashire, with carrots and Brussels sprouts, on top of which sat shaved slices of black truffles from Wiltshire (£8 a serving); and baked quince with a brown sugar palmier biscuit. Wine prices are fair and Clarke’s has a particularly impressive range of Ridge Monte Bello wines from California.
More impressive, perhaps, is the way the new layout encourages diners to talk and listen; no tables crammed uncomfortably together. In this Clarke is bucking a trend – but it would be a brave person who bets against her. Few, back in 1984, expected a female chef with a no-choice dinner menu to prosper for three decades – especially one who forgot to make the lamb sauce the day before she opened.
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122 & 124 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH, 020 7221 9225; www.sallyclarke.com