In the Kitchen With Melissa Clark

One of the country’s most beloved food writers is Brooklyn-born, -bred and -based.

“You know this trick, right?”

Melissa Clark flashes her characteristically broad grin before scattering skinny onion crescents into a scathing-hot skillet in the kitchen of her Prospect Heights brownstone. Immediately the slices sizzle, natural sugars caramelizing as the outer edges begin to scorch.

Puffs of barely bitter smoke rise up and curl around beams of sunlight streaking through the floor-to-ceiling windows—on the sill sit two dozen bananas earmarked for a piece about turning Nathan Myhrvold’s notoriously high-tech Modernist Cuisine into an amateur-friendly dinner party. (Despite the fact the former Microsoft exec helped prep, that recipe didn’t make the cut.)

Once the onions are just black enough, inked at the edges yet still with a raw snap, she adds the oil and finally gives them a stir. A few minutes later they’re sweet and slightly frizzled, a fine umami-addition to the rye, currant and caraway savory scones destined for “A Good Appetite,” her beloved six-year-old column in the New York Times.

You’d be forgiven for thinking “Melissa Clark” is code name for a cadre of prolific food writers out to eradicate lackluster food and bland writing. Clark clearly possesses superpowers—she barely looks 30 but her name is inked on more than three dozen cookbooks, including those of legendary chefs like Daniel Boulud (Braise), David Bouley (East of Paris) and Claudia Fleming (The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern). The latest is Cook This Now, her own love letter to seasonal cooking. You find her online (where the slender redhead now hosts how-to videos filmed in her kitchen), all over the Times Dining section (where she has published more than 400 stories), on Twitter (she’s got over 40,000 followers), on TV as a panelist on the Cooking Channel’s Food(ography) and magnetted weekly, in cut-out recipe form, onto refrigerators across America.

* * *

But Clark isn’t some Midwest transplant given to gushing on Twitter about the latest trends. She is a third-generation Brooklynite who for decades has had a front-row seat to—and, often, active role in—the city’s food revolution.

Clark grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in Ditmas Park when it was still called Flatbush, attended PS 139 on Rugby Road and honed a predilection for real lox at an age when the palates of most kids were attuned to Lender’s. (“Russ & Daughters just had the best lox,” says Clark, “but we actually didn’t go to Russ & Daughters that often; the place we went to most often was this little place on Avenue C.”) She ate at New York City legends—dumplings and dim sum in Chinatown; Tommaso’s in Bay Ridge for big Italian family-style feasts, Lundy’s when it was still just “a good place to get clams,” says Clark—back before they vanished or when visiting them wasn’t a foodie pilgrimage, but what people did for dinner.

In other words, not only is Clark the one who really introduced the world to trendy treats like easy confit (a trick from working with the Bromberg brothers on their Blue Ribbon Cookbook) or raw kale salad (gleaned from Andrew Feinberg and Francine Stephens, the husband-and-wife team who run Franny’s and Bklyn Larder around the corner from her home), but she can wax poetic about now-trendy bluefish with the rare knowledge of somebody who knows its real roots.

“My parents caught and ate bluefish all summer long, casting bait off party boats in Sheepshead Bay with my grandfather and uncle,” Clark once reminisced in a piece about smoking her own fish. “Family legend has it that one day the four reeled in 80 blues, which my mother cleaned before sticking them in the deep-freeze.”

That approach to eating was ingrained early. While the rest of us tweet our treks across town in pursuit of the perfect meal or pristine ingredient, Clark’s been doing exactly that since long before Chowhound went from a listserve to a noun. As a kid, she made a weekly trip with her father to Balducci’s, then the city temple of gastronomia. He’d eagle-eye the butcher, directing him on how to slice perfectly thin leaves of meat for veal scaloppine, his every Thursday at-the-stove ritual. And every August, her psychotherapist parents took their two daughters to a tiny town in France for what amounted to a monthlong tour of French farm stands—long before Greenmarkets got to Grand Army—and the country’s best restaurants.

“My parents were big foodies, and my dad’s dream, his goal in life,” says Clark, “was to eat at every Michelin-starred restaurant in France. My sister and I got to go to the one-star and sometimes the two-star. And then [my parents] would go to the three-star.”

Her knowledge so impressed the staff at the first Dean & DeLuca on Prince Street that she scored a part-time job at the age of 16, when Giorgio DeLuca and Joel Dean were still running the place. “The whole staff taught me about cheese, they taught me about salumi, about produce,” reminisces Clark. “Then the older kids, who were in college, would take me down to Chinatown for lunch, and we would get chicken feet. It was so cool.”

The next year she found a restaurant job at a since-shuttered place on lower Atlantic Avenue called Peter’s, where she nearly ran the inspired kitchen each weekend. “I was the brunch chef at 17,” she laughs, “because the guy who owned it was a total stoner.” Even so Clark learned plenty, since the place made nearly everything—pies, pastry, omelets—from scratch. “This was the late ’80s,” recalls Clark. “People barely knew what sorbet was, and we made sorbet.”

She loved the gig, and briefly considered going to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, but the always-skinny high-schooler decided against the physically and emotionally demanding work in the kitchen. Instead she went to Barnard to study English—not exactly every CIA hopeful’s safety school.

Writing came to Clark naturally: Frank McCourt, who would later write the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Angela’s Ashes, taught her at Stuyvesant in the 1980s, and told her she should be a writer. But food was always her first love. Even in high school, her prose was rich with food metaphors and nods to M. F. K. Fisher. After undergrad, Clark went on to get an MFA from Columbia’s graduate program in writing, focusing on creative nonfiction and history, eventually tossing aside her plan to craft gripping historical novels to focus on food.

School was her day job; by night she worked front of the house at restaurants, including three years as a hostess at Larry Forgione’s An American Place (a then-hot-spot she insisted her parents take her to when she graduated from high school) and eventually Gramercy Tavern, where she worked the coatroom for just one day until she realized that to really write about restaurants, she would need to stop working in them. (“I don’t think I ever even told Danny Meyer,” says Clark.)

By the time she hit grad school, she was also catering for art galleries, her Columbia professors and their friends from her tiny kitchen on the Upper West Side. “It was either me or the deli down the street,” jokes Clark, “and I was cheaper, and I was trying to be fancy.” She succeeded, pulling off receptions, parties and even farm-country weddings, shopping at then-blossoming Greenmarkets and Kalustyan’s and whipping up gougères or yogurt-marinated chicken masala out of books like The Loaves and Fishes Cookbook by Anna Pump, Madhur Jaffrey’s early works and The Silver Palate Cookbook.

“Purple potatoes were the thing then,” recalls Clark. “I’d boil them and halve them, and put smoked trout mousse on top—still delicious!”

Catering also taught her how to improvise, even work through mistakes, which became the subject of a column last October. “I once served ‘bitter eggplant salad,’” laughs Clark, advising to change the name to match expectations: “This is my compact, fallen soufflé!”

Clark scored her first food writing job before she even finished grad school: Her cousin’s friend was a Singaporean entrepreneur launching a prescient but now-defunct Web site called Cuisinet. She got a dollar a word to write profiles of the 20 top American chefs at the time, tailing them in their kitchens when she could. Then a small book company came calling with an urgent need: 100 recipes on bread-machine baking, due in just six weeks.

“I had the bread machine going 24 hours a day,” recalls Clark, who by then was living in Curry Hill. “I’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and do my feedings.” (Published by Berkley Press in 1993, The Bread Machine Cookbook curiously continues to be one of Clark’s best-sellers.)

The assignments grew, including plenty of posts for Web sites. In 1995 she got a part-time job as recipe editor at a start-up magazine called Great American Home Cooking. (It never got off the ground, but the women behind it, Pamela Mitchell and Tracey Seaman, now help run Every Day with Rachael Ray, for whom Clark also occasionally wrote.) The bread book publisher hired her to write recipes for a second volume, a book about coffee, a kitchen primer and for a series of recipe cards that paid $90 a dish. (The company had bought a recipe packet from Sweden that came with photos but no text. Rather than pay for new art, they had Clark recreate dishes based on the images, snapping pics of her work to prove it looked the same.)

And by 1999, Clark had published her first book project with a chef—“Queen of Soul Food” Sylvia Woods, who ran her famous eponymous restaurant in Harlem. (Woods called Clark—who was then dyeing her hair platinum blond—“the whitest girl” she’d ever seen and sent her home with oxtails and mac-and-cheese for her then-husband.)

By 1999, when Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook hit bookstores, Clark had moved back to Brooklyn.

* * *

Not that she went home willingly: Her husband at the time was the one who insisted, says Clark: He wanted to buy a house. She wanted to stay in Manhattan, but fell for the brownstone she still owns near Grand Army Plaza, on a street whose beauty she used to point out to her dad as he drove her to school. And so she moved back, “grumbling and griping.” In retrospect, says Clark, who started out at LaSalle and Broadway when she was at Columbia, then moved down to 86th Street in grad school, then down to 27th, then to Third Avenue, “I sort of inched my way back to Brooklyn.”

As she did, two other important things happened: Al di là opened in Park Slope and Diner in South Williamsburg, officially heralding a “new” Brooklyn food scene that would, a decade later, threaten to outshine Manhattan’s. Maybe more importantly, it was the same year that she got her break with the New York Times. Clark’s friend Ana Deboo had been the assistant to Rick Flaste when he was working on cookbooks with Pierre Franey. When Ana went to India for three weeks, Clark had filled in. So after Flaste took a job as the Times’s Dining section editor in the late 1990s, he asked Clark if she’d like to take on a tiny column.

It was called “Food Chain,” a 200-word Q & A addressing reader questions about everything from how to get a crisp quiche crust (Clark’s advice: follow James Beard’s lead and brush a par-baked crust with beaten egg or mustard before pouring in the custard filling) to explaining cupboard curiosities like treacle.

“I clung to it tenaciously,” recalls Clark: “I rewrote every column. I would have my dad read it. I would have my mom read it. I would have my roommate read it.” Her husband cut out the first one and had it framed.

She was good. Her editors noticed and also had her write for a column called “Temptation,” covering the likes of airy bear claws at the French Culinary Institute, or the curiously delicious hot tong-shui (almond tea) in Chinatown. She started pitching ideas, and restaurant trends became her beat, too, from tapioca in savory food (March 1999) and the comeback of chestnuts (November 1999) to dining in the dark (November 2003).

But she has always been most masterful writing about recipes, and her signature style, a sophisticated and global take on can-do home cookery told with a story of trial, error and improv, solidified in the Times with a piece entitled “Easy Blender Borscht with Horseradish Cream.” In it she took a classic, added two twists (precooked beets; the blender), and exponentially simplified an hours-long recipe into a 10-minute summery soup, inspired by her own youthful travels.

“There, garnet-hued and vacuum-packed, were small, bulbous bunches of cooked, peeled beets,” she wrote. “They looked familiar. I had seen something similar in France, where supermarkets sell cooked beets as a matter of course.” The recipe was not adapted or attributed to anyone: For the first time in the paper of record, it was hers alone, though it’s doubtful many readers noticed—it ran on September 12, 2001.

Soon she was suggesting installments for “The Chef,” a Times column cooking with a chef for four bi-weekly installments. It was part mini cookbook, part interview, part cooking seminar. Of note is Clark’s collaboration with Feinberg and Stephens of Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder—Clark is now helping them write their first cookbook, due out this year. (“We never considered anyone else,” says Stephens.)

Meanwhile, Clark was writing and creating recipes for Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachael Ray and other magazines. More of her own recipes started appearing in the Times, always beginning with a friendly lead-in, perhaps a story about her Grandma Ella’s baked apples or an intriguing declaration in 2006 such as: “A few years ago, I achieved perfection in a pie crust and it smelled like pig.”

In February 2007, she was rewarded with her own column, “A Good Appetite,” which formalized her style, wit and ingenuity, and gave her own kitchen prime real estate in the Times’s food section.

In the beginning her column was musing and collegial, in a we’re-in-this-together type way. But when Mark Bittman left the food section and his long-running “Minimalist” column in 2011, Clark took on a more authoritative tone.

“Pete Wells, then my editor at the Times, said that at this point it’s disingenuous,” recalls Clark. It’ was a huge step. “Instead of saying that I’m creating just like anyone would, I’m saying, ‘I know what I’m doing, and this is how it works.’”

Indeed one thing that makes Clark unique is that wonderfully convivial voice, as accessible as it is expert. “Ebullient,” “effervescent” and “smart” are often used to describe it.

“She has a nice, clean, straight voice that makes you want to cook and eat,” says food historian and author Betty Fussell, who taught Clark as a student in Columbia’s first food writing class exactly 20 years ago. It’s “a Cook’s Illustrated style but at a more sophisticated level.”

Like Cooks Illustrated, Clark’s core calling is nailing recipes. But where Kimball’s famous magazine is conceptually cooking in black and white—the ultimate fried chicken, the very best pork chop—Clark is Technicolor: Her bird is done in duck fat, her chops infused with anchovies. “She gives you encouragement to be freer and to use big flavors,” says Zoe Singer, a food writer who started out as Clark’s assistant. Clark shows us that we don’t have to be schooled by a chef, adds Singer, “to create an exciting meal.”

Clark, after all, has been taking all the lessons for us: This is a woman who learned to braise at the elbow of Daniel Boulud (which led to mustardy rabbit with coriander seeds) and who was taught how to slow-cook collards with Sylvia Woods. These days the once-platinum Clark is back to her auburn roots, and her own mac-and-cheese (it’s custardy and creamy and loaded with shredded carrots) is equally famous. She’s collaborated on dozens of cookbooks—everything from Modern Vegetarian Kitchen with chef Peter Berley in 2004 (which won both James Beard and Julia Child food writing awards) to Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible: The New Classic Guide to Delicious Dishes with More Than 300 Recipes in 2011, culling inspiration and insight from scores of chefs for each collaboration, cookbook and column.

“If I see Melissa’s name on a book, it’s like a stamp of approval,” says Kate Krader, a longstanding friend and the restaurant editor at Food & Wine, where Clark published her first real recipe under her own byline—veal chops roasted over high heat with grapes—back in 2000. “She has this uncanny ability to get inside their [chefs’] heads,” adds Krader. “She goes out with [the Times restaurant critic] and can taste a dish and break it down for the home cook.”

Her knack for distilling the essence of a very complicated technique, procedure or flavor into an approachable and simplified version for the home kitchen—while still retaining a quirky, sophisticated taste—has always set her apart from other food writers and even chefs. Her 2005 book Chef, Interrupted: Delicious Chefs’ Recipes That You Can Actually Make at Home, whose cover features Clark slurping from a spoon held by Daniel Boulud, is the archetype of the “chef secrets” cookbook genre.

Not that Clark is only known for translating fancy restaurant fare; far to the contrary: “If I hadn’t really trusted the friend who sent me the link to a recipe for twice-baked stuffed potatoes, I certainly never would have clicked on it,” she wrote in a recent column. “Those supersize tubers have always scared me. Growing up I’d see them at food courts in a mall—microwaved until soggy, heaped with sour cream until sloppy, littered with neon-orange cheese. The recipe, however, was an elegant antithesis to my mall-food memory.”

That personality-filled passage illustrates the other reason why Clark is now regarded as one of the best food writers in the country: It’s her storytelling. The whole my-eyes-fell-on-the-mountain-of-rhubarb-I’d-bought-on-a-whim-and-I-realized-I-could-make-a-perfect-counterpoint-to-the-char kind of approach. “One of the things that makes her column so great,” says former restaurant critic and Times colleague Frank Bruni, “is it takes readers through her process.”

“Where there’s a whole lot of bullshit and ‘look at me’ cooking in the blog world,” agrees Betty Fussell, “Melissa Clark tells us exactly what she’s doing and why.” Of course it doesn’t hurt Clark is also a pro: “I don’t know many bloggers,” says Olga Massov, the founder of sassyradish.com and one of Clark’s current kitchen assistants, “who test recipes 10 times.”

Happily, all that often ends up in print. Clark at her finest gives us the adventures behind her food, how she improvised some dish she’d first tasted at Buttermilk Channel, then slowly perfected using up that butternut squash bought at Grand Army Plaza and the garam masala she bought on Ocean Avenue.

“There’s something about Brooklyn,” says Clark, “even before the new Brooklyn explosion. There’s an ease to Brooklyn; it’s this total melting pot with lots of ways to fit in. You come and you belong,” she says. “I love how you can take the train a few stops and be in another world. Chinatown, Coney Island, Carroll Gardens. Every time I go out I get inspired. My aim is not to get inspired—it’s to get dumplings! And while I’m there I might see jujube and be, like, ‘Hey, what’s a jujube?’” (Answer: A Chinese date, which Clark turned into sweet soup.)

Today, where there’s food, there’s Clark, rhapsodizing about “sassy” beets with Indian spices, tempting readers with a berry tart made with rose-petal-steeped pastry cream (“I planted it a decade ago yearning for old-fashioned, blousy blossoms,” she wrote of a suddenly blooming rosebush, “but I never got much more than a single bouquet”), or even lighting a pork cake on fire.

“Although it is supremely delicious, you do not need to make a pork cake in order to set something on fire,” she counseled. “Any old cake will do.”

That is classic Clark, and if you consider she’s been publishing similar first-person musings since the early aughts, it’s almost like she nailed the art of blogging before the term existed. Her ability to make cooking a human and sometimes fallible effort inspires eaters everywhere to pick up a paring knife and tackle dinner. It’s a unique balance that not many aside from Julia Child can do. What we really like about Melissa Clark, it’s safe to say, is her.

Each of her stories is like a thumbtack in the city’s culinary timeline, documenting not only the chefs and trends and fashions and produce gluts of the time, but also how home cooking went from spectator sport to anyone’s ambition—from Upper East Side entertainers to Williamsburgers with a hot plate. Many are collected in In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, a 2010 tome that offers all of the treasures bestowed every Wednesday for three years.

Just one year later, Cook This Now hit the shelves. Unlike Good Appetite, these recipes weren’t taken directly from her work, but instead offered almost a diary of the favorite things she cooked at home for family and friends over a year, usually built around whatever she’d lugged home on Saturdays after a run around Prospect Park. Cook This Now’s recipes are faster and even more straightforward than those of her columns—on her blog she described the collection as “the simple, easy recipes that I can throw together at the end of a long day without fuss”—while still offering insightful flavor combinations. Her cauliflower with salted yogurt, cumin and pomegranate seeds, for example, is cited by fans as “life changing.”

But those who’ve actually met her are perhaps her biggest fans of all. She is loved by colleagues, neighbors, market farmers, new bloggers and crusty old chefs.

Part of the attraction is that Clark straddles Olde Brooklyn and the new New York: the artisans and locavores and the DIY set, whose work and foods she buys, admires and respects, though always with “a gimlet eye,” as she puts it. “On the one hand I’m like ‘yes, it’s all happening in Brooklyn!’ And on the other, I’m like, ‘are we going to become like Berkeley? … Is all of it going to become the butt of every joke?’

“But you know what?” she laughs, “I’m used to being the big joke. What is the biggest joke when you were a teenage girl? Growing up in Flatbush. So I can deal.”

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Raquel Pelzel started working in restaurants when she was 15. Accustomed to hiding butter and side towels from guys on the line, she now writes cookbooks from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and only has to hide her Uni-ball Vision Elites from her husband.