SALLY CLARKE is one of the most quietly influential cooks in Britain. She broke new ground when, 13 years ago, she brought a new style of cooking to London. It came from West Coast California, and the basic inspiration behind it was to bring the best fresh produce straight from garden to table.
Fresh vegetables, salad and herbs remain the cornerstones of Clarke's cooking, along with basics such as bread. It is no coincidence that she owns a bread shop, which she started herself to ensure that she could get bread good enough for her own restaurant. Now bread from her bakery is sought after by many restaurants and delicatessens.
Her fine cooking, known for its lightness and simplicity, is roundly acknowledged by the Good Food Guide. Colman Andrews, the editor of America's top food magazine, Saveur, numbers her among his favourite cooks in Europe. She cannot, however, win a smile from the Michelin Guide, who will not recognise a restaurant that offers only a fixed menu for its evening meal. It is Michelin's loss.
Sally Clarke adores soups, but she has to say they don't suit her dinner menus. "They don't fit into the scheme of things in a restaurant. Soups are thought of as hearty, warming and filling, so you don't want to start a four-course meal by filling up immediately. It's not appropriate. And personally, I don't like wine with soup."
Dinner, says Sally, needs to unfold slowly. "A soup is too fast. It's eaten quickly. In the kitchen it causes chaos when some tables are on to their main courses before the others have properly started their first courses. It's like a collision on the M25."
During the summer she does put on some forms of cold soup for dinner. "It's actually a cross between a soup and a salad. One is a cold tomato soup, made from split, roasted Sicilian tomatoes, pureed and sieved, filling no more than one third of a soup plate. It will be garnished with five different sorts of tomato, roast garlic, green and purple basil leaves and served with a mile- long breadstick. The diner is absorbed, they take in the idea of it before they eat it. It's refreshing. The acidic flavours sharpen the appetite.
"A spring soup served at dinner is jellied chicken broth, once again filling only a third of the soup plate, garnished with the smallest, youngest, freshest peas, little broad beans, baby carrots and cooked baby leeks. They need to be shown off, piled high like a salad. It's something you want to look at and enjoy before you eat. It's interesting, you need a spoon and fork to eat it."
Soups have come a long way since Sally was young. "Then it was what all the leftovers went into. It was pureed and it didn't matter what colour it was. People supposed it did you good, but I doubt if it did. And it did nothing for the taste buds."
The best soup that she has ever tasted, she says, was at the renowned Fredy Girardet's in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Parsley soup, bright green parsley soup. It was very simple, I think, shallots, butter, chicken stock and parsley, basically. He served it with deep-fried frogs' legs. Parsley soup has to be made carefully - very quickly towards the end to retain the freshness and greenness of the parsley."
It goes without saying you must use the keen-flavoured, flat-leafed parsley, and not the tough, curly sort.
Sally Clarke does find it appropriate to serve soup at lunchtime, though. It's on the lunch menu all year round. In the summer she serves the aforementioned "tomato and tomato and tomato" recipe. In the autumn she leans towards fish soups - broths flavoured with green coriander leaf and chunks of sauteed fish. In the winter she uses lovely, tasty root vegetables, as her recipes below illustrate so well. At this time of year, it's one of the best ways to bring the rich flavours of onion, beetroot and parsnip to the table.
We asked Sally Clarke about her influences; favourite dishes and ingredients; and likes and dislikes.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life as a cook?
Jean Alexander, a private caterer in Surrey. She hired me when I was 12 years old. I remember catering for a wedding party; she bought wooden wheelbarrows to present the salads. She didn't put a leaf of watercress on a plate as a garnish, she'd use a whole bunch. In her spirit of generosity, she was long before her time.
Who would you say is your favourite cookery writer?
Elizabeth David. My mother used to go through a recipe with me, then go off to the garden and I'd spend three hours in the kitchen trying to cook it for the family. My mother is working for me now - she's 69 and my oldest employee. She gets up at 4am every Monday to buy flowers in the market and comes in to the restaurant to arrange them.
What is your favourite restaurant?
Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I met Alice Waters (who opened it in 1971) when I went to the US, and I'd say she has been another major influence. I love her cafe, the pizzas, the pasta and the simple little grills.
And confined to Europe, what would you say is your favourite restaurant?
Hiely in Avignon. I've been twice only, 10 years apart. Both times it was perfect. Then I read Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and found she'd also been twice, and at a 10-year interval and she had the same opinions.
Which of the British restaurateurs have influenced you?
Simon Hopkinson and Alastair Little. The best help I had was from the late Peter Langan, simply the sweetest, the loveliest, most generous of people. He knew perfectly well I didn't enjoy his language, and if he went too far he knew I'd jump up from the table and leave, so he kept a grip on himself. But he came to the restaurant, and gave me the best advice: not to bring the kitchens up to the dining room; not to move the lavatories; to forget about the tables, no-one ever sees them, they are covered with a table cloth; but to buy the best, the very best chairs I could get. I did what he said. He was right. Then his partner, Richard Shepherd, recommended me to his suppliers and they all gave me credit. I couldn't have got off the ground without them.
What do you look for in a restaurant?
I generally look for unhurried naturalness and simplicity. I think particularly of a place called Vipere, a two-hour drive into the hills beyond Lucca, where the owner used to take you out into the garden with him to pick the rocket.
Do you have any pet hates about restaurant cooking?
Yes, I do - its complication. I asked one very famous chef (I won't give his name) what were these tiny green spots on his cauliflower soup. Ah, he explained, it was a puree of steamed something, strained, reduced in a pan, then emulsified, added to something else, reduced again, then dripped into the soup. But this is science, I complained, not cooking.
What is your favourite food?
Japanese food in California - in London it's often not good enough. I love sashimi and grilled smoked eel with lots of soy sauce.
What would you vote as your favourite salad vegetable?
Fennel. Raw, either sliced or quartered, with Maldon salt crystals and olive oil.
It has to be the potato. Is it too passe to say Pink Fir Apple? Or Ratte? Or Roseval? With Maldon salt, olive oil, a scoop of raclette and a gherkin.
And how about your favourite fruit?
Every fruit as it reaches its peak. There is nothing like an apricot at its peak. Then there is nothing like a raspberry at its peak. And nothing better than a strawberry at its peak. And when an apple is at its peak, why would you want anything else?
I love them all. Flat-leafed parsley. Large-leafed thyme. Bush basil ...
Turbot, roast till it springs to the touch. With olive oil or a buttery sauce on the side, not touching, so that you can dip in each piece of fish as you want.
Crab. I really love lobster, but crab has everything - colour, flavour, texture, the contrast of the white and the creamy brown meat.
Bulgar, cracked wheat. I make a cracked wheat salad with masses of lemon juice and sliced fresh tomatoes. I buy my bulgar in Portobello Road Wholefoods where there is fast turnover.
What would you class as your favourite kitchen implement?
A short kitchen knife, with a curving two-inch blade for cutting and paring, very cheap. They're about pounds 1 each from Hansen's in the Fulham Road.
And your favourite electrical gadget?
A coffee grinder. I use it to grind red and black peppercorns. And cumin and coriander seed.
So, how do you keep so slim?
I don't eat. I work from 7am to 10pm without a break (except to go home and change at lunchtime if I'm doing front-of-house in the evening). Breakfast is one-and-a-half cups of tea, I have a cappuccino at 11am. A plate of dessert at 3pm. A bowl of Grapenuts before I go to bed. It's a dreadful diet, but I think in the West we eat far more than we need.
It sounds as if you don't enjoy eating?
Oh, I do, but not when I'm working. I can only enjoy eating if I can sit down with friends and relax, and mostly I only do that at weekends.
What's your philosophy, then?
What am I doing, you mean, serving people four courses, more than they need to eat? Providing a service, helping people to relax, offering them our hospitality and providing them with a stage for their business or pleasure.
Clarke's, 124 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH. Tel: 0171 221 9225
100ml/3fl oz olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons cumin seed, ground
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, ground
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 fresh green chilli, halved
2 onions, chopped
3 sticks celery
1 bulb fennel
5 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
2 pints vegetable stock or water
1 large bunch fresh coriander
yogurt or sour cream to taste
Place the olive oil, garlic, cumin, coriander seeds, turmeric and chilli in a heavy-based saucepan and heat gently until aroma is released.
Add all the vegetables and stir over high heat until well coated in the spices. Add coriander leaves, salt, vegetable broth or water to cover and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until vegetables are soft.
Puree in a blender or Robot Coupe and pass through a sieve into a clean pan. Check for seasoning and consistency. Warm gently to serve, with a large spoonful of yogurt or sour cream. Garnish with sprigs of coriander.
MINESTRONE WITH SAN DANIELE HAM
100ml/3fl oz olive oil
2 large onions
4 large carrots
8 sticks celery
2 bulbs fennel
2 large leeks, washed and sliced
1 green chilli
1 clove garlic
1 ham bone (press your delicatessen to keep a San Daniele ham bone end for you)
bunch of parsley
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
shavings of Parmesan
salt and pepper
Cut vegetables into small dice, keeping all trimmings to one side.
Heat half of the olive oil, half of the crushed garlic and half of the chilli together in a heavy-based saucepan until the aroma is released. Then add the vegetable trimmings and the San Daniele bone end.
Stir until vegetables begin to soften, add water and simmer for 45 to 60 minutes, carefully skimming away fat from the surface from time to time.
Strain the liquid and allow to cool slightly, then skim again.
Keep the ham bone piece, but discard the vegetables.
Clean the pan. Return pan to heat with remaining oil, garlic and chilli and wait until aromas are released. Add diced vegetables and stir over high heat until pale golden in colour.
Add chopped herbs and broth and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Taste for seasoning. Pound the chopped parsley, garlic and remainder of olive oil together to make a paste adding salt and pepper.
Slice the ham from the bone as thinly as possible and place in the bottom of six soup bowls. Pour soup over top.
Serve accompanied with parsley oil, Parmesan shavings (you can use a potato peeler) and grilled focaccia.
ROAST ONION SOUP
6 large onions, peeled and finely sliced
250g/9oz unsalted butter
12 bottle good quality red wine
12 litre/16fl oz chicken, beef or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons thyme, chopped
6 rounds of ciabatta bread or french bread
6 slices of Gruyere cheese
In a large heavy-based saucepan, melt the butter gently and then add the finely sliced onions. Turn up the heat to highest setting and cook, stirring until the onions are deep brown in colour and the consistency of marmalade.
Add wine and allow to bubble. Add stock, salt, thyme and pepper to taste. Simmer until flavour and consistency are correct.
Heat the grill to the highest setting. Toast the bread on one side, turn over and top with the Gruyere. Grill again until well melted.
Warm up six soup bowls. Place the toasts in first, then pour over the onion soup. Serve immediately.
BEETROOT AND DILL BROTH
4 medium to large beetroot, uncooked, well-scrubbed
1 tablespoon chopped dill
6 sprigs dill
4 large carrots, washed and peeled
1.2 litre/2 pints good home-made chicken stock
salt and pepper
Cook the beetroot in boiling, salted water until tender (up to one hour). Then, cool and peel.
Slice finely and cut into matchstick shapes. Place in a bowl with chopped dill, salt and pepper.
Cut carrot into similar matchstick shapes. Place in pan with the chicken broth and cook until carrot is tender and add the seasoned beetroot.
Serve in warm soup bowls topped with a generous scoop of sour cream and a sprig of dill.
Serve with rye bread spread with lots of unsalted butter.
SAVOY CABBAGE AND BLACK TRUFFLE SOUP
1 small savoy cabbage
600ml/1 pint double cream
4 whole cloves garlic, crushed
12 bunch thyme
600ml/1 pint vegetable or light chicken stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon black truffle, chopped
fresh black truffle for slicing
Remove unsightly outer leaves from cabbage if necessary. Break off the rejoining leaves and wash well. Cut into irregular but neat triangles, removing the thick vein.
Warm the double cream gently with the garlic, salt and pepper on a low heat (use a heat diffuser) and do not allow it to boil. Cover mixture and leave to infuse for one hour.
Then add vegetable stock (or chicken stock), and simmer gently, uncovered, until the thickness of single cream. Strain, add chopped truffle, taste for seasoning, and keep warm.
To serve, warm six soup plates. Boil a pan of salted water and cook the cabbage for one or two minutes until it starts to wilt. Strain.
Divide the cabbage leaves into the plates. Pour the broth over them, finishing with the finely sliced black truffle. Serve immediately.Reuse content