This Saturday, James Beard Award Winner Claudia Fleming will be one of over 30 top chefs participating in the James Beard Awards' annual Chefs & Champagne event. Claudia rose to fame as the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, where she was named Pastry Chef of the Year in 2000. Claudia and her equally talented husband, Chef Gerry Hayden, have since escaped the city and opened The North Fork Table & Inn, now considered to be one of Long Island's best restaurants.
We talked with Claudia about her new life out in the country, her favorite sweet treats, and the less-than-desirable side effects of publishing a cookbook.
What do you love most about being on the North Fork? Going down the street and picking your greens or your herbs. Having wine makers at your back door. It really is farm to table. And I hate to use that term because it's so overused, but eight years ago when we went out there—you know, it's a chef's paradise.
Were there any unexpected challenges to opening up a restaurant on the North Fork? The seasonal customer base is huge. You have no idea what it's like for the population to just vanish after a certain point. Thankfully our season is quite longer than the South Fork because there isn't a large rental market. The people who have second homes here use them all year round.
What were the greatest advantages to having your restaurant on the North Fork as opposed to New York City? I would say knowing who's growing your food. And, you know, the farmer is out the back door or you're going to the farm to get it from him. So there's a real personal relationship with the farmer. You're talking to farmers and they're saying, "So... is there something in particular you want for me to grow next year?" And they're all sheepish about it and stuff and you're like, oh my god yes! Please! Really? You would grow figs for me?
Did you get any figs? Yep, I've got my berry farmers growing figs. I got figs all last summer. My berry farmer is just brilliant. Oyster Pond Farm, they're the most incredible berries I've ever had. And you know, I get them around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, they pick late in the day, they're still warm from the sun. It's just amazing. Things really are at the peak of ripeness. In my case, they don't have to travel more than five miles.
I'm sure a lot of people haven't had berries that have traveled less than five miles. Certainly not, people cannot believe it when they taste them. Not those sour things that you get in the grocery store, that were picked when they were white and traveled for two weeks. The simplicity is really what we were looking for. So we made our life as complicated as possible and opened a restaurant.
As a pastry chef, how do you feel your work has evolved since leaving Gramercy Tavern? I feel like I just want to make things people crave and want to eat. There's not a whole lot to prove at this point. That doesn't mean that the standard moves one iota, it just means that your ego starts to not be in there anymore. It's not about you; it's about what people want.
I had ten people on staff at Gramercy. I have three now. So there aren't as many hands to produce as many elements for each plate anymore. Now life is much more complicated, so my desserts are simpler.
It's not just about making dessert anymore. It's making sure it will sell, and that the magazines are up to date in the rooms, and that the herbs on the tables are fresh. It's about making sure that the rabbits aren't eating the garden and that the dishwashers are breaking down boxes. I run a restaurant now; I'm not just making desserts anymore.
Tell us about your cookbook, The Last Course. Oh my gosh, the other day, I wasn't at the restaurant, and a woman called because she was making one of the recipes and was frustrated about it either not working or something happening. She was indignant that she speak to me, and was very upset with the person on the phone. She said, "you know, the same thing happened when I called Marcus Samuelsson. You should be happy that I bought your cookbook!" I'm not a help hotline. When the book first came out, all day the phone ringed. "I'm making this, and would it be okay if I substituted pepper for salt?" If that's what you want to do...
Do you have a favorite dessert? Hmm, that's really hard. I like to make the most is ice cream because of the gazillion variations. You can infuse a flavor without making people eat anise hyssop. Who wants to eat anise hyssop? It's furry and gross, but the flavor is delicious, so you just infuse that in some cream. Ice cream is the perfect vehicle to introduce interesting flavors to people. Yeah, it's ice cream and cookies. Call it a day for me. Cold and creamy and crispy, or whatever.