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The French Laundry's head pastry chef Claire Clark on life in California

17 April 2008 by

The French Laundry's head pastry chef, Claire Clark, who will be appearing at this year's Chef Conference on 12 May, takes time out from her kitchen to tell Joanna Wood a few secrets about life in California

Give us the essential differences between American and British brigades.

They all speak a different culinary language. It was ages before my brigade and I understood each other properly, and that's really frustrating when you are in a new place and want some ingredient or piece of equipment quickly.

We now use a mix of American and English terms. It works if both parties are willing to learn the other's terminology. We have fun taking the mickey out of each other now.

The understanding and knowledge of basic French pâtisserie is less in the USA than in the UK and Europe. However, they're very knowledgeable on products we don't know how to handle or don't use regularly in Europe, such as peanut butter, marshmallows, Graham crackers, etc. I feel both my staff and I have grown and expanded our repertoires by learning from each other over the past two years.

In the USA, they don't use scales, especially for baking - cups are more common. And if scales are used, they are in pounds and ounces. It's not uncommon to have an American recipe with a mixture of cups, pounds and grams in it. It really drives me mad.

I've got my staff using only grams now, but the occasional hotchpotch recipe sneaks through. Also, when you try a recipe from an American baking book, the direct translation from cups to grams isn't always successful. It's a nightmare.

Everything is "awesome" or "dude". To me and you, that translates as "brilliant" and "mate".

Where are your favourite places to have a cup of coffee or a drink after work in Napa Valley - and a cup of tea in London?

I don't drink coffee, but my favourite place to have a cup of tea is on my work station in the pastry department of the French Laundry - at 5.30am.

All the pastry staff had tea-making lessons when I arrived and now can make the perfect cup of tea just the way I like it: Fortnum and Mason's Earl Grey loose tea, made in my silver teapot - a gift, when I left the Wolseley, from Jeremy King and Chris Corbin - poured into my Wedgwood china teacup. It is the best cup of tea of the day because it is always my first, always hot, and I do not have to make it.

After work there is always Bouchon, Thomas Keller's brasserie-restaurant just down the road, where my sous chef, Courtney, and I can catch up on the day and have a glass of Schramsberg sparkling blanc de blancs, which is made locally and is outstanding.

You were on the launch team at the Wolseley in London. What was the most difficult thing about doing that?

Storage space was a real issue. The fridges and freezers were far too small for the amount of produce we were receiving daily. There was not enough room for dry storage, either, and it made it really difficult to be effective when it came to production.

Did you ever think about sticking in the hot kitchen during your early career?

No, never. The kitchen is too hot. I fainted most of the time in the hot kitchen and had daily nosebleeds. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. So I did - to the pastry.

Is it easier being female and a chef today than when you started?

No. I think it is about the same if you are going into a mixed kitchen led by a male head chef. Maybe the law nowadays is better, and female staff get more support from the HR department. There are more kitchens now led by women, even some that just employ females. I have never worked in either, so I can't say if they are any better than a mixed kitchen - but, personally, I would miss the men.

There have always been more influential female cookery writers than chefs. Who do you admire?

Delia Smith, because she made cooking for the housewife interesting and easy. Her recipes always work, unlike most chef cookbooks. People have never been intimidated by her.

I am also a fan of Frances Bissell, who used to be the Times's cookery writer. She's very knowledgeable and her recipes are fantastic and easy to follow.

Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I hate Brussels sprouts, I love Guinness, and I always paint my toenails different colours.

That all sounds pretty normal. Do you enjoy teaching - handing on your skills?

It is the thing I most enjoy about my work. There is nothing better than seeing someone you have taught doing really well, then going on to another job and being successful. It makes everything worthwhile.

Give us a question to ask Marco Pierre White at the conference.

I'd like to find out what has been the biggest sacrifice he has made in life.

Recipes from Claire Clark >>

chef conference 2008
chef conference 2008

Meet the maestros

Meet Claire Clark and Marco Pierre White at the 2008 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference on 12 May at the InterContinental London Park Lane hotel, where Clark will also be cooking a course at the conference dinner, alongside Danish star René Redzepi, Sat Bains, Jason Atherton and Claude Bosi. Also taking part in the conference will be Angela Hartnett, Glynn Purnell, Nathan Outlaw, Arthur Potts Dawson, Ollie Couillaud, Theo Randall and Damian Allsop.

For more information, and to reserve your place, go to www.chefconference.co.uk.

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