Gillian Clark: The chef people love to hate?

February 1, 2011

To Gillian Clark and Robin Smith, the videos were a small window onto the surreal, sometimes downright asinine behaviors the owners see while running the General Store in Silver Spring. With chef Clark operating the camera and Smith serving as a one-woman troupe, the two just wanted to amuse themselves over some of the frustrations, minor and otherwise, they encounter: a snaggle-toothed customer who mistakes a molar chip for a piece of glass, a neighbor who can't grasp the no-fried-chicken-on-Sunday menu, the husband who races to the counter, leaving the door ajar and his poor wife behind in the parking lot.

For weeks, the videos were merely inside jokes, exclusive to the friends and fans and colleagues on Clark and Smith's Facebook pages. But then a few complained they couldn't view them, so Clark moved the videos to YouTube, where they were discovered by the Washingtonian and DCist. The latter wrote a short item on Jan. 11, and all hell broke lose.

The blog post generated more than 50 comments, a number of them from diners spitting venom and swearing never to set foot in a Gillian Clark restaurant again. The commentary on the videos varied from the snarky ("1 part harmless, 1 part rude, 8 parts boring") to the psychological ("Mocking others is a certain sign of an inferiority complex") to the ruthless ("This is just further proof that I was right to decide that she just hates her customers").

On a cold Friday afternoon in January, after cooking for a steady stream of diners at lunch, the partners sat down and tried to help me understand why two veterans of the hospitality industry would want to create almost a dozen videos devoted to parodying the people who pay their bills. Clark and Smith swear they had no malice in their hearts.

"Just for our own friends and just to pass the slow times of the evening, we would stage a reenactment, where something really bizarre happened in the dining room," Clark explains. "There are people who live by a different standard, and they live among us and that's fine. But sometimes we find it funny because it's not something that we're used to seeing."

The two profess to be surprised by the negative public reaction, even though they are acutely aware of the unflattering reputation that Clark has built in her 13-plus years as a chef and/or restaurant owner. Clark even jokes darkly about it. Describing how she feels - as though her every action elicits condemnation - Clark jokes that her online naysayers could even use the death of her father last year as just another opportunity to tell her how terrible she is.

Smith says flat-out that "Gillian has always been the chef people love to hate."

Rude, or just busy?

If much of the public hates her, that hasn't stopped Clark from expanding her empire. After her planned restaurant in Takoma Park fell through in 2009, Clark has been aggressively scouting properties for other projects: She has two more eateries, the Georgia Avenue Meeting House in Petworth and the Kitchen on K Street in the emerging NoMa (North of Massachusetts) neighborhood, scheduled to open this spring. What's more, last September, she appeared in an episode of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" in which she gave host Guy Fieri tips on how to fry chicken; Clark then schooled an Iron Chef with her very same buttermilk fried chicken in a recent episode of "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay," which she won. She's writing another book, an Anthony Bourdain-esque collection of kitchen war stories, which she's shopping to publishers. And despite the videos, her General Store is still doing brisk business.

So what's there to hate?

The 47-year-old chef will tell you there's not much. Clark, in fact, has an almost encyclopedic recall of those moments when she says she truly lost it: once to a produce supplier who refused to deliver before her Saturday brunch and another time when a woman with a "messy" hairstyle started making a scene because she felt her meal hadn't been worth the long wait. When Clark tried to kick her out of the restaurant, the woman went on a tear, culminating with the statement, "That's why you can't get a man."

Clark didn't take kindly to the cut. She started screaming in the dining room, "Does somebody have a brush? Anybody have a brush?"

Beyond those episodes, Clark says she thinks her reputation has been built on misunderstandings and mistaken notions of a chef's role. The coolness that diners feel radiating from her open kitchen at the General Store, and at Colorado Kitchen in Brightwood before that, is not personal, she says, but a reflection of an overworked chef who must concentrate on ticket orders, not customer relations. She also says many diners, this writer included, have taken her penchant for signs and rulemaking far too seriously. Some were merely jokes, others gentle attempts to protect property.

"I'm like, 'What did I do?' Oh, that's right, I ask people to put their gum in a tissue," she says. "I have the unmitigated gall to ask them to put their gum in a tissue. That's horrible. I'm Hitler's sister."

What's more, Clark is quick to drop a Molotov cocktail on online haters who gripe that she never interacts with them at her restaurants; she suggests that their desire to have her smile and greet them may be racially motivated.

"I'm led to ask, would you buy less pancakes if Aunt Jemima wasn't smiling on the box?" Clark says. "Is it because a black person that's doing the service industry [and] not smiling is offensive, because you feel that I'm not that much further from a slave? If I'm doing a domestic or a service job and I'm not smiling, is it triggering some impulse?"

The chef's beginnings

Right or wrong, inflammatory or not, Clark's many opinions are easy to find with a few quick Internet searches. She also wrote a memoir, "Out of the Frying Pan" (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), in which she recounted her tale of leaving behind the corporate world and a mostly unhappy marriage to pursue the life of a chef.

There's little need to rehash all of those details, but here are some pertinent facts about Clark's upbringing: Her mother was a microbiologist, her father a social worker and a passionate home cook. They emphasized education and curiosity among their five children in their home in Great Neck, N.Y. The parents also had rules. Clark and her four older siblings were not allowed to call anyone "stupid" or tell them to "shut up." "My mother didn't raise me to be rude, and she'd be horrified at the notion that I was anything but gracious to somebody," she tells me.

By the time Clark graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1985, her mother's scientific influence was starting to wane. Clark switched her major from pre-med and graduated with an English degree. She enjoyed a lucrative career in corporate communications until 1995, when she ditched it all to follow an early fascination with cooking. It was her father's influence kicking in.

Just two years after graduating from L'Academie de Cuisine, Clark landed her first job as a full-fledged chef. In 1997, Michael Babin, now a co-owner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, hired Clark to lead the kitchen at his first operation, the Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray. Despite decent reviews, it was not a good fit, and Clark was gone within eight months. She didn't last long at her next job, either, as a cook at Mark Furstenberg's Breadline in downtown D.C. Her next two jobs were rather short-term, too.

It was a difficult period in Clark's life. She was going through a divorce. She was raising two daughters, Magalee and Sian, without much support from their father, and she was coming to grips with her own sexual orientation. She met Robin Smith, an IT technician in Southern California, online in 1997, and the two cemented their early friendship through e-mails and phone calls.

One early employer, Mike Curtin Jr., owner of the long-gone Broad Street Grill in Falls Church (and now chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen), found his new chef stubborn and resistant to menu changes, particularly when he suggested adding a club sandwich. Clark, he remembers, equated the suggestion to being zapped with a cattle prod. Clark's chutzpah may have been unwarranted, too; Furstenberg didn't think much of her cooking then (though, years later, he was impressed with her skills at the General Store). "I didn't know when she cooked for me that she was such a good cook," he says. "It was a time in her life when she didn't want to show that."

One of Clark's early mentors was Ann Cashion, the James Beard Award-winning chef. Clark was a cook at Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan before Cashion recommended her for the Evening Star job.

"She doesn't suffer fools gladly," says Cashion, who remains Clark's friend and champion. "She doesn't feel any need to sort of disguise how she feels if somebody is being ridiculous. That is sort of how she deals with everybody in the world. . . . She's always dishing it out."

Which might help explain some of Clark's off-putting behavior when she opened Colorado Kitchen in July 2001. But Cashion also agrees with Clark's assessment: Colorado Kitchen was small, and Clark sometimes had to run the place herself, both kitchen and dining room. Such stresses don't make for a kindly disposition.

Fiery but private

There's no getting around the fact that Gillian Clark can also stir the pot outside the kitchen, when there's no dining room full of customers to cause her stress. In April 2003, she wrote a long note to The Post's Tom Sietsema defending her rule for no-dish substitutions or customizations at Colorado Kitchen. "Personally, I prefer the way Herbert von Karajan conducts Beethoven's Third Symphony," she wrote. "But I would never ask Zubin Mehta to finish the Adagio with the hesitant 3/8 that Herb finishes with."

The reaction was swift when Sietsema posted the note on his weekly chat. One person wrote in: "Geez, I had [no] idea chefs were so whiney. She took all that time just to say that she doesn't like substitutes? She even had the audacity to compare herself to Shakespeare and Beethoven."

Clark and Smith have continued their online offensive over the years, with Clark most recently mixing it up with commenters on a Prince of Petworth blog item. ("No people skills? I apologize if I did not personally thank you for purchasing my book. After all I am in the kitchen and cooking, too.")

The reenactment videos on YouTube (which, incidentally, are no longer available to the general public) would seem to fit into that pattern: a chef and her partner who are laconic in the kitchen but vocal via the computer.

After spending that day with Clark at General Store, I got the distinct impression that, for all her outspokenness, Clark is indeed private person prone to, as Cashion told me, showing her affection by poking fun of people.

Until I asked her for this story, Clark hadn't even acknowledged her long-term personal relationship with Smith in the media; Clark didn't address it in her memoir, either, because Smith had not come out to her family. But both women agreed to say publicly that they are a couple. Clark lists herself as "married" on her Facebook profile, though she says the union is not a legal one.

But Clark also revealed something telling, perhaps unintentionally vulnerable, when I asked her if there is a double standard in the restaurant business, if the public accepts temperamental male chefs but not female ones. She says angry male cooks are often given a pass and adds: "You have to be a little crazy to do this. Most every chef, man or woman, is a perfectionist. We're hard on our staff. We're hard on ourselves more than anybody. That's just how it is. We beat up ourselves up all the time."

If chefs can understand anything, it's a fiery and perfectionist-oriented personality prone to enjoying her own company. What some can't understand is why one would then design a restaurant that encourages customers to interact with the chef as part of the diner experience. "If you're not able to put yourself out there," says Jamie Leeds, chef and owner of Hank's Oyster Bar and CommonWealth Gastropub, "you shouldn't have an open kitchen."

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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