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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Melissa Clark with her husband, Daniel Gercke, and daughter, Dahlia.

“I owe a lot of my early success to just blindly saying yes to everything,” she says. “Call it confidence or call it stupidity.”

Clark’s big breaks — the ones that have made her a household name to many home cooks — came in the late nineties, almost simultaneously. After filling in for a friend on maternity leave, Clark was offered her first regular gig in the Times dining section: a short advice column called Food Chain. The topics were eclectic and decidedly pre-Google: everything from why it’s important to proof your yeast to where to find the best Hungarian goulash in New York City. Most importantly, the piece came with a byline. “It made people start to ask: who is this Melissa Clark person?” 

One of those people was Sylvia Woods, Harlem’s “Queen of Soul Food,” who needed a coauthor for her cookbook. Clark got the job, and for several months she would travel to Harlem and spend time with Woods and her family, listening to their stories. She’d often take the subway home carrying a pot of Woods’s homemade oxtails.

“I had platinum-blond hair at that point, and Sylvia called me the whitest white girl she’d ever met,” Clark says. “But I found that I was good at ghostwriting, at assuming someone else’s voice — it must’ve been that little part of me that went to Columbia to be a novelist.”

"Many people in the food industry don't understand that there's a difference between a chef and a cook."

From there, Clark went on to collaborate with some of New York’s most prominent chefs: Gramercy Tavern’s pastry chef, Claudia Fleming; Bouley owner and executive chef David Bouley; and the legendary Daniel Boulud, to name just a few. “People ask me all the time why I didn’t go to culinary school. But I think I got a better education working on cookbooks. Who else can say that they’ve had a private tutorial from Daniel Boulud?”

Oddly, it was Clark’s work with restaurant chefs that made her a fierce advocate for the home cook. To write the cookbooks, Clark would usually take the recipes home and make them in her kitchen, with her own set of knives and pots and pans. She’d make notes about what realistically worked in a home kitchen for someone with access only to a neighborhood grocery store, and then she’d bring the final product back to the restaurant for the chef to taste.

“I was always asking: How do we make it easier? How do we make it faster?” Clark says. “I think many people in the food industry don’t understand that there’s a difference between a chef and a cook.”

 

Today, Clark’s whole professional world revolves around a kitchen: specifically, the one in the Brooklyn brownstone she shares with her husband and eight-year-old daughter. She spends her days there with an assistant, testing recipes for her Times column and videos, and for her ever-growing list of cookbooks.

Clark is vigilant about staying current — keeping up with new trends, gadgets, and ideas. One of her most shared recent columns was on the Instant Pot, an appliance that combines a pressure cooker, slow cooker, steamer, and sauté pan (Clark’s verdict: buy one if you don’t already own a slow cooker). She’s fully embraced another technique popular with the blogging set: the sheet-pan dinner, in which proteins, starch, and vegetables roast together for a quick meal. And she’s constantly trying to master new international cuisines, to imbue her recipes with different flavor combinations. 

“Right now, I’m obsessed with Korean cooking,” Clark says, pulling out a Barnard Alumnae notepad where she’s jotted down ideas for a kimchi-based stew and a slaw that uses the leftover braising liquids.

Seasonal eating remains central to her food philosophy. She’s practically the mayor of the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, Brooklyn’s largest farmers’ market, which sets up on Saturday mornings at the entrance to Prospect Park. Her weekly ritual is a jog along the park’s 3.3-mile wooded loop (the same path she’s been running since she was seventeen years old), followed by a stop for groceries.

On a recent Saturday, she’s smitten by the spring produce: the broad leaves of rainbow Swiss chard, the fat bunches of asparagus, the rosy stalks of rhubarb, and the elusive ramps, wild-growing cousins of leeks and garlic that only appear for a few weeks. “I love spring produce because it’s so fleeting. You gear up for the ramps, think about when the ramps will start to arrive, put ramps on everything, and then they’re gone!” Clark likes them on crostini with a little whipped ricotta; this week, though, she grabs an armful of chard, a few stems of rhubarb, and a pound of sweet Italian sausage.

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