Like Father, Like Son
A thoroughly American culinary legacy.
June 20, 2017
By Stephen Satterfield
Preston Clark is a man who makes an impression.
The first is usually with his voice. Guttural and charming, it’s enriched by a wholly original dialect: New York meets California, with a twang. The accent, hard to place but distinctive, is a clue to his story. Preston spent his childhood chasing the whims of his father, Chef Patrick Clark—one of the greatest American culinary stars of the last half-century, who died of heart failure in 1998, at age 42.
Now, his indelible mark on the American dining scene is amplified by an enduring new legacy: That of his eldest son, Preston.
I met Clark last spring under some unusual circumstances. It was the weekend of the Met Gala, and I had been hired as a guest sommelier for a party hosted by the ex-wife of a notorious and obscene(ly wealthy) media tycoon. The soiree was held in a lavish four-story apartment overlooking the West Side of Central Park. In the kitchen—at this strange intersection of opulence and fashion—was Preston. Black people in food always notice each other. It’s certainly the first thing I noticed about the man presiding over the meal, and his expression told me he had made note of me, circulating the room with the wine.
After the party, the staff headed into the night to shake off the bewildering shimmer of the rich and famous. Over drinks, I found out that when he wasn’t cooking for New York socialites in their homes, Preston ran the kitchen at Lure Fishbar in Manhattan, located on a bustling, pulsating corner in Soho. He was serious about his craft and loved working with high-caliber fish. He told me how he was born in Manhattan and moved from Jersey to Los Angeles, to Virginia. His father went where the best kitchens were, he said, and where his father went, they went. By then, I absolutely knew who his father was. I’d read about Patrick Clark in books on American cuisine, appearing alongside names like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower. I’d seen him on reruns of Iron Chef. Patrick Clark was a celebrity in this world I was learning to love.
Seven years after he passed, I was staging in a Portland country club kitchen under Chef James Patterson. Patterson, an African American chef of Clark’s generation, told me about him; told me about how he trained and worked in Britain and France, notably with three-star chef Michel Guérard. I remember being struck by how rare this was, a black man cooking professionally in Europe in the seventies, and by how deeply he had impressed my mentor. His name stuck with me.
Patrick Clark in the kitchen of Tavern on the Green, 1996 | Courtesy Preston Clark
It’s rare enough in American cuisine for children to follow their parents into the kitchen, but Preston isn’t just the second in line to this unique legacy: He’s third. His grandfather Melvin was also a New York City chef; in the 1930’s, he cooked at fine food at culinary institutions like Charley O’s, The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and the Four Seasons. Though Melvin and Patrick were both reared in the “classic” European training, the younger Clark noted the distance between the type of food he was cooking and that of his father.
“When I start putting together a menu, I can’t help thinking how different what I cook is from what my father cooked,” he told Molly O’Neill of The New York Times Magazine in July 2005. By then, he was already becoming known for effortlessly combining French technique in an accessible format, in the style that laid the groundwork for what we now refer to as contemporary American cuisine.
The racial context here is all very much worth noting. For centuries, the kitchen was the only place where work for African Americans was available. The political and social advancement of civil rights in the 1960’s meant blacks were looking to move out of the kitchen and into other professions. A lineage like the Clarks would be an extraordinary biological pedigree for any American family, but for an African-American one, it is even less likely. The definitive role of the black cook has been well chronicled, but for the most part, that legacy has been reduced to highly-skilled home cooks—not celebrity ones.
“After the Civil Rights Act (of 1964), being a chef was the last thing on everybody’s mind. They went for the so-called glamour jobs,” Patrick Clark told Toni Tipton-Martin in her book, The Jemimah Code, “It wasn’t until the 80s that chefs started to receive notoriety and celebrity status.”
Months before Preston came into the world, his father was the opening chef at The Odeon, a quintessential downtown Manhattan restaurant with famed restaurateur Keith McNally. In Clark's New York Times obituary, written by current wine editor, Eric Asimov, McNally said this about the early days of the landmark Tribeca Restaurant: ''Customers would rave on about the food, and I'd say why don't you meet the chef […] And they would be startled.''
Black and brown culinary arts professionals know this startled feeling. It is an amazing testament that more than thirty years ago, a chef who led a generation of Americans to embrace a new style of casual but sophisticated French cooking happened to be black. His race was not his sole legacy, but for a black chef born in 1955, it’s notable. “In his lifetime, and my lifetime, and my son’s lifetime, race will never not be part of the narrative,” Preston says. “Just because of the history. But the caliber of his talent made it easier for him to transcend. My god, all I remember is persistence.”
His father’s restaurant, Metro, burst onto the scene in 1988, with lots of praise, and a brisk 130 covers a night. It wasn’t enough. When the raging economy of the 1980s began to wane, Metro and restaurants like it closed all over New York City, ushering in the era of the bistro. After closing up shop, the family moved to California, and then to Washington D.C., where Patrick was offered a shortlist opportunity by President Bill Clinton to cook as the White House chef. He declined, instead opting to return to New York City as the Executive Chef of legendary Tavern on The Green. Under his leadership, according to Ruth Reichl—then writing at The Los Angeles Times—he revived its culinary reputation.
Whether or not Preston had any choice in the matter of becoming a chef is as vexing as the nature versus nurture paradox itself. But the outcome—his chosen life as a chef—is one that satisfies him. His cooking can best be understood by examining what his food isn’t: stark, staid, fussy. He loves punchy flavor, and lots of texture. Preston loves cooking seafood, and his proficiency on display at Lure reflects that passion. A dish that typifies this style is the whole-cooked branzino, which is cooked on the plancha and served with roasted fennel and carrots. Branzino is a generous fish, and one of the most delicious, but it was the edges of his food, the crispy corners and crunchy veggies, that best demonstrated his technical roots, the instinct in his bones. Of course he can cook fish properly—he was born to.
“Your destiny in this field depends on how hard you work at it,” Patrick Clark once said. “Nobody can ever tell you how far you can go.” And it’s true, nobody ever thought to limit him.
Almost twenty years later, his son shows no signs of stopping. Must be in his blood.