Quantcast
×

How Trailblazing Chef Patrick Clark Changed the Story of Modern American Dining

At the Odeon, he brought fine dining skill to a more casual setting in a way that took New York by storm.

Patrick Clark Photo: courtesy Lynette Clark Fields

To commemorate Black History MonthRobb Report is publishing a five-part series highlighting Black designers, thinkers and other creators whose pioneering work has shaped the luxury sector. This is installment five.

The legend of the Odeon is built largely on the people who frequented it in the early years of the now four-decade-old restaurant. In what used to be a seedy part of Manhattan, New Yorkers from different corners of the city met over dinner and debauchery.

“It was a very interesting culture clash where you had the Soho art scene, club kids, young designers, Wall Street money and the burgeoning loft renaissance; it provided an intersection where those people wouldn’t normally have been together,” says Scott Barton, who worked in the Odeon kitchen in the 1980s. “I regularly saw Cher and Carol Channing; Madonna having fights with Sean Penn; there was Andy Warhol and Roy Cohn; and they were all together in one room.”

While the action in the dining room garnered plenty of attention, something extraordinary was happening in the kitchen, too. A young Black chef, Patrick Clark, was challenging New York’s dining conventions of the day. He showed off his world-class nouvelle cuisine technique in a casual atmosphere at a time when food of that caliber primarily existed at the stuffy French restaurants of Midtown. Long before chefs with fine-dining training won accolades by opening more laid-back restaurants across the country, Clark was at the forefront of a sea change in dining. And he did it all at a time when Black people weren’t afforded such opportunities to do so.

“You have to fundamentally understand how rare it was to have a Black chef in that position,” Marcus Samuelsson says. “Patrick was a trailblazer. He showed me it was possible to do this at the highest level.”

In Clark’s short life, he packed in a bevy of accomplishments: He took the teachings of nouvelle cuisine’s French masters and, along with chefs such as Larry Forgione and Alice Waters, helped create what would become known as new American cuisine; he was the first Black person to win a James Beard Award for Best Chef; he became one of the early celebrity chefs to appear on Iron Chef and Julia Child’s show; he cooked a state dinner for Nelson Mandela and turned down an offer from the Clintons to run the White House kitchen; he mentored a generation of Black chefs coming up behind him; and he ran the massive Tavern on the Green before dying at age 42 in 1998 because of complications from the rare blood disorder amyloidosis.

Yet, even with that résumé, it may be the feat Clark pulled off at the Odeon that best illuminates the chef’s lasting impact on the culinary world.

***

The Odeon NYC

The Odeon took over the space long occupied a cafeteria.  Photo: courtesy Flicker Creative Commons

Clark grew up the son of a chef in Brooklyn and attended culinary school in the city but got his true culinary education abroad, first in Britain and then in France under Michelin three-star chef Michel Guérard, a culinary superstar of his day.

Guérard helped steer the ship of nouvelle cuisine in France, ushering in an era “where people were really starting to veer away from those, the heavy French butter sauces,” says Preston Clark, Patrick’s son and an accomplished chef in his own right, leading Lure Fish Bar in New York and Miami. “They started using fruit and vegetable juices and things like that to make the food a little bit lighter than the traditional way that had pretty much equated to fine dining.” To work for Guérard and thrive at that time imbued a chef with some serious culinary street cred.

Clark returned to the states a Francophile, steeped in the teachings of his mentor. And he had the master’s seal of approval, as Guérard hired him to work at Regine’s, his New York outpost. “It helped him,” says Barton, a Clark protégé who is now a professor at NYU. “I know it helped him in the eyes of Keith and Lynn for the Odeon.”

Then-husband-and-wife duo Keith McNally and Lynn Wagenknecht cofounded the Odeon with Keith’s brother, Brian. Inspired by the brasseries they experienced in Paris, they wanted to create their version back home, eventually finding a location in an old cafeteria in the then rough-and-tumble downtown neighborhood Tribeca. They pursued the 24-year-old rising star Clark because Keith, an English immigrant, wasn’t as hung up on race as his fellow American restaurateurs. “I’ll give it to Keith McNally,” says Herb Wilson, a chef and protégé of Clark. “He was a pioneer in terms of hiring African Americans both in the back, and especially in the front, of the house.” But getting Clark to venture to the wilds of Lower Manhattan was a tough sell at first.

“When they took him down there Patrick was like, ‘You’re crazy, there’s nothing here!'” says the chef’s widow, Lynette Clark Fields.

“Tribeca was deserted. People played stickball in the streets in those days. Going down that way, it felt like you’d fallen off the end of the Earth,” says David Waltuck, the chef and co-owner of Chanterelle, which he opened with his wife in 1979 in Soho. “After we got reviews and people started coming, people would pull up to our restaurant in a cab and they wouldn’t get out, they’d just leave—it was just too deserted, too weird.”

But Clark could see something in Wagenknecht and McNally’s vision that appealed to him. In those days, if you wanted great food in New York, it would invariably be French and most likely pretty stuffy. The Odeon would be something else, a collision of high and low. That jibed with Clark’s approach to cooking. “He was about really really good food, but he wanted you to come as you are,” Clark Fields says. “He didn’t care how you dressed, he just wanted you to come and enjoy a really good meal.”

***

patrick clark

Clark wanted to foster a community of chefs.  Photo: courtesy Lynette Clark Fields

To build on his craft, Clark threw himself into all aspects of his work, even studying intently on his one day off a week. “He had all these recipe books in English and French,” Clark Fields says. “I’d be reading my James Patterson, and he’d be over there reading those cover-to-cover.” From France he brought back technique as well as a desire to find the finest ingredients—and he was always on the lookout for the best.

Clark Fields recalls the times she drove the chef to the train station or work in the morning and he’d be insistent on getting to the restaurant quickly. But that urgency would fly out the window if they happened to pass by a farmer’s market. “We’d have to stop. He would ogle the tomatoes and squash and I could be jealous of a tomato, the way he looked at them—he just loved it,” she says with a laugh. He knew he had to put in the work to track down quality produce, because in the 1980s, the ranks of premium purveyors were much thinner.

According to Wilson, that kind of effort was necessary at the time. “Back before the food revolution, you couldn’t get heirloom tomatoes at the grocery store, and even from your vegetable vendors you couldn’t get fresh herbs,” he says. “But Patrick turned me on to the first place you could get fresh herbs, Glie Farms in the South Bronx.”

To translate his vision to the plate, he drove his staff hard, deploying the carrot and stick. “He was very demanding, he was very loving; he was very harsh, he was very fraternal; he really cared about the cooks, but he would come and he’d yell at you,” Barton says. “He wanted you to understand the ins and outs of a recipe without taking notes and he’d quiz you on it later, because he wanted you to be present and on point. He would run across the kitchen like he’s a Mack truck that’s going to mow you down if he thought something wasn’t being cooked the right way. Yet it wouldn’t always be to yell at you, but to show you how it should be done. He was training us to do be thoroughbreds.”

His scholarship, passion, attention to detail and ability to drive a team paid off. New York power players and celebrities flooded the restaurant and the critics co-signed the glitterati’s enthusiasm for the Odeon. Clark was giving New Yorkers something they hadn’t really had before, and it was working.

***

Cooking with Patrick Clark

The cookbook where Charlie Trotter paid tribute to Clark after his passing  Photo: courtesy Amazon

At the Odeon, Clark would get to execute dishes that outshined traditional French brasserie food, like with his mousseline of asparagus with artichoke cream or his sautéed calf’s liver with radishes and turnips. And, yet, you could still order much more casual fare.

“We take it for granted, but it was a big deal at the time to have a menu with all these French reference points, but then you could have a great burger,” says Andrew Friedman, who chronicled this revolutionary era in American restaurants with his book, Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll. “I don’t know if you find an example of those two things clashing prior to that. Jeremiah Tower at Stars gets a lot of credit for creating the American brasserie, but you could argue that Odeon did that in a lot of ways.”

Of course, like with the location, the burger required a little persuasion from McNally. “In the beginning, Patrick was like, ‘What?’ He was not for that,” Clark Fields says. “Patrick was very headstrong. Back then you didn’t do a burger, but once they convinced him, he was going to make it be the best burger you’d have.”

The menu threaded a needle where a diner could casually enjoy some fries and a wine in a tumbler while gawking at Grace Jones. Finance types could splurge on more fine-dining fare, Saturday Night Live cast members could turn it into their clubhouse, and club kids could land there at 1 am and still get a great meal. All of those people could feel comfortable—and find something they wanted to eat—at the Odeon.

Early on, The New York Times deemed the restaurant worthy of two stars. And venerable critic Gael Greene got it, too. She said Clark was performing nouvelle cuisine heroics and creating exquisite still life on giant plates. Greene threw around words like “dazzling,” “blessed,” “irresistible,” “magic” and “triumph” in her review.

Yet, in an industry that still struggles to foster an environment that’s open and equitable for Black chefs, Clark ran headlong into prejudice. In the Times’ obituary of Clark, McNally remembers how diners would be taken aback by the chef being Black. They expected Black chefs to only serve soul food, and not be masters of French cuisine like Clark. Despite the racism, his talent shone through.

“It was honest, clear cooking. Not a lot of bells and whistles, but impeccable technique, clean. It’s hard to make something simple well. He wanted every bite to be delicious, whatever that took,” Barton says. “Patrick wanted to be at the highest level. He had very high aspirations and if he hadn’t had those, I think the Odeon would have settled and I don’t think the restaurant would have resonated.”

***

After opening the Odeon in 1980 and then also running Wagenknecht and McNally’s next project, Café Luxembourg, Clark left in 1987 to go out on his own. His follow-up, Metro, was well received but struggled in the wake of the stock market crash. He relocated to Beverly Hills and then Washington, D.C., before returning to his hometown.

Clark’s life was cut short right as food media was really coming into its own, before he could have his own show or be a judge on Top Chef and generally burn his image into the American food consciousness like an Emeril Lagassé or Tom Colicchio. But the people he was able to mentor, like a young Marcus Samuelsson, whom Clark offered guidance and counsel, still speak of him with reverence 23 years after he passed.

“As a Black person, you learn to live a completely different experience, because the experience is so different,” Samuelsson says. “Our heroes are mostly anonymous, even if they don’t deserve to be. Patrick isn’t anonymous to me or Edouardo Jordan or Nina Compton or Mashama Bailey. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Patrick and his trailblazing.”

Indeed, Clark’s contribution to the story of modern American cuisine altered its arc. At Odeon and after, during a formative time in America’s restaurant history, he had an incalculable impact. “He was an example for Black chefs, and he was an example for all American chefs,” Preston Clark says, “in that great cooking wasn’t just done by the French.”

More stories honoring Black History Month: 

More Dining