Gillian Clark Dishes Up Comfort, in Her Cooking and in Sisterhood
CHEF GILLIAN CLARK is a restaurateur, a mother of two sisters, a sister to four other siblings, and an inspiration both in and out of the kitchen. Now a star of the Washington, DC, restaurant scene, Gillian was in major transition 15 years ago. She was all set to leave her 9-to-5 marketing job behind and follow a long-held desire—to move to a farm with her family—when her marriage suddenly dissolved. Forced to abandon one dream, she turned to another and instead became a chef. Professional cooking is demanding work for anyone, but for a single mother of two young girls, it was particularly challenging. In her recent memoir, Out of the Frying Pan, Clark shares her triumphant, and yes, delicious story. The Sister Project was drawn to her spirit, her conviction about the healing powers of a great, shared meal, and her tough-love wisdom about cooking, parenting, and living the life you truly want.
Like TSP, The New York Times is also a fan–Gillian is the centerpiece of an article there, too, about new restaurants that reflect the “real D.C.”
Gillian asserts that when her girls, Sian and Magalee, were young, food was “the most powerful weapon in [her] parental arsenal.” Perhaps her second most powerful is her singleminded dedication to succeeding, against big odds: Gender, race, and age were all working against her when, at 32 years old, she first set foot in a professional kitchen.
In spite of conflicts with bosses, disappointments from unreliable coworkers, and the inevitable exhaustion of an endless work week, Gillian was able to grow into running her own restaurant in Washington, DC. Her tiny Colorado Kitchen (she describes the cuisine as “Betty Crocker gone Cordon Bleu”) was a success for seven years, until the building that housed the quirky restaurant was sold. Her new restaurant, the General Store (in Silver Spring, Maryland), is due to open just in time for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
And how about the beautiful sisters about to take up residence in the White House? When asked, Gillian firmly resisted giving any advice at all to the indomitable Michelle Obama, though she did say this:
“I have found listening to my daughters go on and on about the minutiae of their day—especially if mine has been full of stress and havoc—is the best medicine. This is the kind of thing that happens at the dinner table. I know it might be impossible, but once a month or something, dinner as a family.”
We hope that Gillian will have the chance, someday, to create one of those First Family dinners. After all, our new President is known to be a fan of dining out, and perhaps she’ll serve one up with homey favorite Clark treats like Pineapple Upside Down Cake or Brownies and Blondies involved? But in the meantime, we asked for her perspective on sisterhood, and some delicious recipes.
THE TSP INTERVIEW WITH GILLIAN CLARK
Q. “You know you’re a sister when…”
A. “There is one person that can be and do just about anything to, for, and with you, and none of it angers or surprises you. You can tell your sister anything and know that your secret is safe. And you can laugh at yourself and at her and know that there are no hurt feelings or lingering wounds to suffer. You can trust her to give you the right answer and show you the essentials. I’ll never forget my oldest sister, who I turned to for those kinds of things: patiently showing me how to put on make up, and sharing blouses and dresses.”
Q. Best of/worst of experiences with your sister?
A. “Worst—we are always doing things for each other, and sometimes we’d cross the line and offer too much advice. I have often made one of my sisters angry by telling them that what they were doing was going to end in disaster. I am sure they’ve warned me about the same. We have hung up on each other, yelled at each other.
“But still, having done the unthinkable, I remember my sister still having the unmitigated gall to come to me to help her out of the jam that I predicted. ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ I say, as I put on my coat and prepare to fix it for her. Just so I can say ‘I told you so,’ and lord it over her. But I forget to do that. And it becomes just another story over the dinner table at Thanksgiving.
‘One of the things I try and get my daughters to realize before there is a crisis is that you need your sister. ‘
“That can also be the best of being a sister. No matter what we are there for each other. Even when we are furious with each other. I’ve often told my two girls, who fight more than I remember fighting (but I’m sure I just don’t remember correctly): ‘You’re going to need each other one day. So don’t say you’re never speaking to her again.’
“When the chips are down and you need someone to talk to, someone who knows you better than anyone, and who cares about you with no hidden agenda, but someone who is not your mother—there is only one person who fits that description. That is your sister.
“It is a relationship you need to treasure and preserve.”
The younger Sian groans when Magalee is about to come home from college for summer break, Gillian says. “She has had the room to herself for so long. But she must admit that no one knows her secrets and knows her next move and her next sentence like her sister does. One of the things I try and get my daughters to realize before there is a crisis is that you need your sister. She knows you, can care about you, with no agenda.
“She is a peer who is really looking out for you, and not her own interest. There is no other person in the world like that.”
Q. Are there cultural references (books/music/movies) that the sisters in your life love or love to fight about?
A. “My oldest sister and I used to love to watch old movies together. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among our favorites. Allison had read East of Eden, Giant—the books from her favorite James Dean movies. To me, she knew everything.
“Then there was the time when she was working the jewelry counter years later at Bonwit Teller in midtown Manhattan. When Ginger Rogers walked in, she was tongue-tied but gracious. Ginger smiled at her and extended her hand. She was older now and not often recognized; it was great to have such a young fan, I’m sure. But Allison could only recall the most recent time she had seen Ginger Rogers in action. She was older and gigs I’m sure harder to come by. ‘I loved you in the Love Boat,’ Allison said with a big smile. I’ve never let her forget that.”
Q. What are the pop culture references that make you think of your sibling or of sisterhood?
A. “We watched a lot of television growing up. Our favorite was Mary Tyler Moore. We’d stay up late in the summer. Four or five episodes of MTM were on at 2 p.m. Mary and Rhoda go through a lot together in a sisterly way.
“There are things that I know in American television that it seems only my sisters and I remember. When Andy Williams asked, ‘Can you see me, Stevie?’ to Stevie Wonder performing via satellite the last time he had the opportunity to host the Grammys. And when the Pips performed without Gladys Knight on Richard Pryor’s variety show.”
‘They know at what point during a movie to hand me a tissue. They know just what to say when I’m upset or worried. They know when to call and when not to.’
Q. What does the word sister mean to you?
A. “I’ve called women not related to me by blood my sister. Because our friendship has grown to equal the bond (or come really close) that I share with my real sisters. They know at what point during a movie to hand me a tissue. They know just what to say when I’m upset or worried. They know when to call and when not to.
“Sometimes my father will call. He never calls. He is one of those men who hates the telephone. Usually, there is something wrong: maybe Allison or Tracy isn’t taking his advice, or is having a confrontation with him or my mother. My father will say, ‘Would you please call your sister?’ I usually can get to the bottom of it—with a calm phone conversation, I can talk some sense into her.”
Q. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your sister?
A. “I think I learned things by being a sister. Not necessarily things my sisters taught me. I’m the youngest of five, with two older sisters. They told me a lot of things when we were kids about nature, the birds and the bees, boys, and none of these things were true.”
Eventually, the older sisters needed her advice. “That was an incredible self-esteem boost,” she recalls. “I was always the little one that followed, tagged along. For years my brothers called me ‘Tracy’s Robot.’ To them I always did what Tracy said I should. So, just a few years later, to be recognized and appreciated for my judgment by my sisters (who I thought knew almost everything), I can’t even put that into words.”
When Gillian was a teen-ager, Tracy needed help.
“Tracy was a young filmmaker and was doing a video project for a contest,” says Gillian. “She tried to be her own cameraman, narrator, editor and writer, and the results were disastrous. I took her script and smoothed out the rough edges and together we went to a video-production studio in Manhattan with all of the money we had in the world: $50. I was the narrator, and the studio took a lot of her original footage, and she worked with the editor and put together a great project. She was one of the 15 finalists. I learned a lot about myself, and being depended upon forced me to dig deep and do my very best for her.”
A GALLERY OF GILLIAN CLARK’S RECIPES
Pineapple Upside Down Cake (get recipe)
Whether celebrating such good times with your sisters or for an entire Presidential inauguration, Gillian has some desserts guaranteed to make the party. Like much of her food, these are elegant twists on traditional favorites–bon appétit! Click on the links to get the recipes here on TSP.
Blondies and Brownies (get recipe)
You can learn more about Gillian at her website or by reading her book (which is full of terrific recipes and the stories behind them), or listening to her audio essays for NPR. You can also watch her giving a cooking demonstration here. Follow her lead, and bake something delicious to share with your sisters. But first, enjoy her album of family photos, images of the former Colorado Kitchen, and some specialties of the house.