Gillian Clark: The chef people love to hate?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 2:36 PM

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.

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