FEATURE

Supper Club

New York Times food writer Melissa Clark '90BC, '94SOA invites everyone to the table.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Summer 2017
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The Clarks visited their share of Michelin-starred restaurants, where Clark ate the classics: perfect omelets, delicate sole meunière, and towering soufflés. But it was the markets and farm stands that really made an impression. In France, there was no such thing as a weekly trip to the grocery store: people would buy fresh bread, cheese, and eggs every day. Instead of margarine, there were slabs of real butter softening on every shop counter. And there was an open-air market in the center of every town, with piles of tomatoes, eggplants, cherries, peaches, figs, and bunches of fragrant herbs.

“At that time, it was harder to find fresh vegetables in America,” she says. “Everything was canned or frozen. I was totally taken both by the produce and by the idea of seasonal eating.”

At age fourteen, Clark earned a place at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where she studied with Frank McCourt, who eight years later would become famous for his memoir Angela’s Ashes. “He was the first person to tell me that I should be a writer,” Clark says. 

After school and on the weekends, she worked at an ice-cream parlor called Peter’s, on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue. When the owner decided to start serving brunch, he put Clark in charge. “Basically, he didn’t want to get up early on Sundays,” she says. “I got to make pastries and chicken-liver omelets. And I also got a feel for how a professional kitchen works.” Though she would spend a great deal of time in restaurant kitchens throughout her career, working as a brunch chef at seventeen was the first and last time she actually cooked in one.

Clark thought about going to culinary school, but instead followed McCourt’s advice and headed to Barnard, where she studied English, then directly to Columbia for an MFA in writing.

To pay for school, Clark worked full-time at Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, first as a secretary and then as a research assistant. Professors there encouraged Clark’s nascent interest in medieval history, and for a while, she thought she’d write feminist-tinged historical fiction, in the tradition of Antonia Fraser.

“But I kept getting distracted by food. It was my metaphor for everything. I could be writing about feudal rights in the Middle Ages and I’d spend half the time talking about what they were eating,” she says. “I once wrote an entire paper on bread and onions in Don Quixote.” 

"I owe a lot of my early success to just blindly saying yes to everything."

In 1993, Clark’s second year at Columbia, the MFA program offered its first food-writing class, taught by cookbook author and food historian Betty Fussell. Like M. F. K. Fisher (Clark’s childhood idol) and Richard Olney, Fussell was a food-writing pioneer, and in her classroom Clark felt like she could see a future for herself. Clark also started studying with Priscilla Ferguson ’67GSAS, a sociology professor who was researching the relationship between cuisine and national identity in France.

“Food writing was not taken seriously then. Aside from a few restaurant critics, it just wasn’t a thing,” Clark says. “I really didn’t know before then that it was something you could do with your life.”

Clark switched her focus to creative nonfiction, and for her thesis she decided to craft a portrait of three up-and-coming New York chefs. She spent a year watching them work, trying to capture their different cooking styles, as well as the personality traits that led a person to succeed (or not) in the intensity of a professional kitchen.

In her own very unprofessional student-apartment kitchen, Clark was launching a business of her own. Word had gotten around that she liked to cook, so she started catering events at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Soon, faculty members there and at the School of Social Work, where she also had a part-time job, were hiring her for personal functions.

“It was either me or the deli next door, and I was cheaper,” Clark says. “I did a lot of wine-and-cheese receptions, which were not so glamorous. But I was always experimenting. I discovered the Union Square Greenmarket during those years, and Kalustyan’s for spices. I started playing around with flavors.”

Clark graduated, moved downtown, and tried to cobble together enough food-related gigs to pay the rent: she continued to cater, she wrote restaurant blurbs for Time Out New York (“the true dream for any New York twentysomething — going out to eat and getting paid for it”), and she worked as a coat-check girl at An American Place, where she sneaked into the kitchen as often as possible to watch the chefs work. Then a small book publisher approached her about developing recipes for a new kitchen appliance: the bread machine.

“I had six weeks to come up with one hundred recipes. And of course I’d never even seen a bread machine,” Clark says.  She had the publisher send her four machines, which she kept running twenty-four hours a day, waking up at four in the morning to feed them new batches of dough. Clark loved the combination of science and creativity in recipe development. She felt as if she’d found her niche.

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