SlitelyChilled Editor’s Memories of Grandmaster Chef Patrick Clark
By Milford Prewitt
Elsewhere on this website you are going to read about a supremely talented chef named Herb Wilson, who is returning to New York – his hometown and where he got his start – to compete in the new chefs’ reality show, Beat Bobby Flay this month on The Food Network.
In interviewing Wilson, he brought up his mentor, confidant and inspiration to a generation of black chefs; a fastidious and disciplined culinarian, gregarious lover of life and creative manipulator of food named Patrick Clark.
At the start of my 17-year-career at Nation’s Restaurant News, I met Patrick Clark, befriended him, and came to interview him numerous times as he moved up the ladder working for others, working for himself, and capping off his career at Tavern On The Green, right before he died too early at 42 in 1998.
Right before he’d leave us, Tavern On The Green was owned by Warner LeRoy, the flamboyant and theatrical restaurateur of Maxwell’s Plum and later, the Russian Tea Room.
Those were the days before Marcus Samuelsson became a household name and the go-to chef of color the food media pointed to in showing diversity’s progress in fine dining.
He was French-trained and possessed of a singular bent to excel and to please.
After graduating culinary school, he traveled and took on apprenticeships in London and Paris.
He was the opening chef of the famed Odeon (still in business in Soho), later Café Luxembourg (still in business on W. 70th St.) and he launched his own French restaurant on the East Side, Metro.
Metro would earn high praise for its sophisticated but casual French cuisine in the late 1980s. In fact, Clark received several honors, including the Grand Master Chef Award in 1988 and 1989, along with being named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic Region at the esteemed annual James Beard Awards.
But Metro’s high menu prices at a time of recession, high rent, and the 1987 stock market crash led to drooping sales and customer traffic going elsewhere.
But Clark was ebullient through it all. A jolly warrior with a smile that could melt icebergs, Clark regretted the loss of Metro but knew he had pushed the envelope to its fullest and was confident that better days were coming.
And indeed they were when he was named the executive chef of the famed Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., right across the street from the White House. He served heads of state, celebrities and other notables, even to include President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. So taken were they by his food, they asked Clark to try out for the White House executive chef position. But he declined in favor of being independent and continuing his off-duty charity work.
Not only was he inspiring to an up-and-coming crew of young black chefs like Wilson, but even white chefs paid homage to Clark’s memory and tutelage.
One of them is Michael Lomonaco, chef and co-owner of Porterhouse steakhouse in the AOL/Time Warner Building in Columbus Circle.
Lomonaco says that as a cab driver in the late 1980s between careers, he picked up Clark one night and engaged his passenger in a conversation about what he did for a living.
“His passion and obvious enthusiasm for what he did was such a turn on that I explored local options,” he recalls. Those local options led to Lomonaco enrolling in New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn – the same institution where Clark got his culinary credentials – and the rest is history.
[Lomonaco will forever be etched in American history as the executive chef of Windows On The World. Were it not for a quick errand to pick up a new pair of eyeglasses the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lomonaco probably would have been killed with 73 co-workers of the restaurant in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. He actually saw the attack walking back to the building.]
In many ways, Clark, posthumously, had a lot to do with the launch of the BCA (the Black Culinarian Alliance) that bestows an annual honor named after Clark to chefs who not only hold up culinary excellence to the highest degree, but who reach out to mentor those who will walk in their footprints.
To say he was well respected and highly admired by his peers in the culinary world is an understatement. A tribute book to his memory and talent, Cooking with Patrick Clark: A Tribute to a Man and His Cuisine, is unlike any ever written in praise of an African-American chef. Edited and compiled by the late legendary chef Charlie Trotter, the 1999 book features contributions from such luminary culinarians as Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Jacques Pepin, Alice Waters, and Mark Miller who all memorialize Clark.
A whole generation of black chefs, Samuelsson included, honor the legacy of Clark and owe a debt to the road he carved. But the time is way past midnight for restaurant owners to do their part, too, in helping put Clark's legacy in action by advancing the diversity of chefs in the kitchens of upscale restaurants.