The food world lost one of its great chefs with the death of Patrick Clark in Princeton, N.J., last week. He was 42.
Clark, who died of congestive heart failure, was chef at New York's Tavern on the Green until November, when his illness forced him to stop cooking.
Many diners in Los Angeles will remember Clark, who cooked for two years at Bice in Beverly Hills, as the chef who got away. For up-and-coming African American chefs, Clark was a role model; his fame came less from being a black chef in a mostly white field but from his incredible talent.
Clark was one of the first celebrity chefs of the '80s. After training and working in Britain and France (most notably with three-star chef Michel Guerard), he returned to his native New York to cook at some of the city's hippest restaurants: Regine's, Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg.
He was among the first of his generation to look back at regional American traditions and recontextualize them for a new audience; the jaded artists, celebrities and cool-seekers who ate in his restaurants were impressed, and so were food lovers.
In 1988, Clark achieved his longtime dream of opening his own restaurant. Metro, on New York's Upper East Side, got terrific reviews. But the city, just a year after the 1987 stock market crash, was in a major recession. The restaurant was averaging a respectable 120 to 130 nightly dinners, but it wasn't enough. To meet costs--including $17,000 a month for rent--Metro needed to serve at least 175 people per night. Clark stuck it out for two years.
"We succumbed to the woes of New York," he later told The Times Calendar section.
He landed here in Los Angeles at the seemingly incongruous Italian luxury chain restaurant Bice. At first, diners were perplexed that a French-trained chef would come to work at an Italian restaurant. But Clark soon made his mark on the menu, and savvy diners knew to go for the specials, which weren't always Italian but were almost always remarkable.
Ruth Reichl, The Times restaurant critic at the time, wrote, "Clark is one of the rare chefs whose food is both straightforward and sophisticated."
No one expected Clark to stay at Bice beyond his two-year contract; many were hoping he'd open his own place in Los Angeles. But urban economic woes seemed to follow Clark. By 1992, Southern California was in its own recession.
"I was on the verge of doing my own place in Los Angeles [in the West Hollywood space that was once Trumps]," he told The Times just after it was announced that he was leaving Bice, "but I just didn't feel the economic climate was right." Besides that, he missed the snow and he missed having his own and his wife's relatives nearby.
Instead, Clark went Washington to head the restaurants at the Hay-Adams Hotel, where he quickly became one of President Clinton's favorite chefs. He was even offered the job of White House chef. He declined, and in 1995 he returned to New York to become executive chef at Tavern on the Green, where he was able to revive the culinary reputation of the Central Park institution. Even better, he got to return to his hometown, where his family was nearby and where it was sure to snow each year.