Cooking is, ultimately, an act of love, of grace, of giving and sharing, of real communion, of living fully in the moment.
-- Ann Clark, in Quick Cuisine, 1993
When I first started coming to Austin in the early Seventies, I loved it for the same reasons that most people did: It was small, sweet, laid-back, and funky -- about as different as could be from my native Houston and less than three hours away. There was cheap live music all over the place, and you had lots of choices for swimming in clean, fresh water. But (barring some quite satisfying Tex-Mex) the one thing you didn't do here was eat very interesting food. That just wasn't part of the Austin scene as I knew it.
What I didn't know, however (I was just a visitor then, as well as a young and inexperienced creature), was that the Austin of those days did indeed contain a lively, if small, community of people who cared passionately about the joys of food and were interested and active in expanding local palates beyond chicken-fried steak. While it was a far cry from the current array of restaurants, cooking classes, and fresh ingredients available now (not to mention the public's seemingly bottomless appetite for all things culinary on television), it isn't difficult to trace many roots of today's food scene back to that era.
When I talk with people who paid attention to local food in those days, a name that always comes up is Ann Clark. I knew she had a cooking school here and had written some cookbooks, but the more I inquired, the more I began to grasp both the depth of her knowledge and the extent of her impact in this town regarding food.
One person I asked was the Chronicle's own Food editor, Virginia Wood. "Oh, yes, Ann had a big influence on me. What I know about French cooking, I learned from her. Don't you remember her school, La Bonne Cuisine?" Well, no, sadly. I guess I was too busy eating tostadas and hanging out at the lake. But my interest was really piqued now. I wanted to know more about Ann Clark and her school and her books and her sphere of influence.
I caught up with Clark as she was in the final stages of coordinating a fundraising gala at the French Legation for Texas Folklife Resources. A diminutive dynamo with upstanding red hair, Clark was too swamped in mega-party-throwing to talk with me just then, but soon thereafter she invited me to her Texas/Provençal-style home, surrounded by aromatic herbs. She prepared an exquisitely simple lunch while sharing stories about her experiences and about Austin as it was before the days of Central Market and rampantly ambitious restaurants. As she worked, I expressed my admiration for cooking instructors who can cook and talk simultaneously. She laughed and said, "When I stopped teaching, I could hardly cook without it; the talking and cooking were always a flow, with everything moving together."
"When I was 14, there were two things I really wanted: to be an artist and to speak French. My little high school didn't offer French, so I studied it by correspondence from the University of Wisconsin."
Upon graduation, Clark attended Smith College in Massachusetts but found her French instruction there disappointingly miserable. After two years she headed for France to work as an au pair for a family in Annecy in the French Alps. As part of her job, she shopped for the family's food and learned about the fresh, flavorful, and thrifty home cooking of France.
"In the Sixties, French kitchens were very spare; they were like little bare laboratories," Clark remembers. "It wasn't that long after World War II, and people still operated very austerely. The refrigerators were tiny, and everyone shopped every day for that day's meals. The quality of food products was incredible, and people paid a lot for it. At that time, fully a quarter of people's incomes went for food. But it was so incredibly fresh, you didn't have to do anything to it to make it taste good."
Meanwhile, Clark's parents had moved to Austin, so when she returned from France, she moved here, too. From 1964 through 1966 she worked at the Garner & Smith bookstore on the Drag and practiced the cooking she had learned in France. "The Book-of-the-Month Club offered five cookbooks for a dollar. I got Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, The Joy of Cooking, The Spice Cookbook, and one other that I can't remember now. I spent all my time reading and studying and cooking with these books."
Eventually, Clark enrolled at UT, where she studied Latin and art history and graduated with a degree in Italian. Over the next few years she lived in Provence, and later returned to Austin to work at UT's Humanities Research Center as a research associate in rare books and print restoration. Her obsession with good food and cooking had not waned, and, at the urging of her friends, she began offering private cooking classes in 1971.
Leta Burns, proprietor of the Bon Appetit cookware store, had started studying with Clark in 1976. Inspired by the venerable E. Dehillerin shop in Paris, she and Betty Harris opened Bon Appetit in the 26 Doors shopping center on W. 38th. At the time, there was no other place for fine French cookware in Austin. "We wanted Ann to do the cooking classes at the shop because she was the best," Burns says. "She had lived in France and spoke French, and she already had a following."
At first, the classes were held within the store in a space that could accommodate 12 people. Later, they moved to a larger space upstairs above Los Tres Bobos (now Los Tres Amigos) Restaurant. "Ann's classes always had her special touch; there was music and wine, and everyone stayed late into the evening because it was so much fun," Burns says. "The classes were social events as well as lessons." When I asked who the students were, she replied, "All kinds of people who shared a curiosity about food; they wanted to move beyond what they'd learned about cooking from their mothers. Ann really broadened all our horizons."
Austin psychotherapist Marilyn Bradford worked as Clark's assistant for several years. "A difference between Ann's classes and others was that she didn't just teach recipes and how to put a particular dinner together; she taught students cooking techniques that could be applied to everything," Bradford says. "She taught basic skills -- series of classes on vegetables, on bread, on stocks and soups.
"Ann was a real pioneer for good food in Austin. She played a tremendous part in expanding people's culinary experience. She was also very supportive of other people getting started in the food business."
Virginia Wood agrees. "Ann was a mentor to many people. By having us teach at La Bonne Cuisine, she provided a showcase for me and others when we were starting up. By Ann's example, I learned much about generosity."
The school flourished at 26 Doors and, in addition to Clark's French cooking courses, it offered classes by local food personalities such as Martha Rose Shulman, Lucinda Hutson, Virginia Wood, Mary Margaret Albright, Irene Wong, and Robert Pucci. The school hosted top-flight visiting chefs like Diana Kennedy. "What was available in those days was nothing like it is today," Burns recalls. "When Diana came to teach, we had a hard time finding the chiles and other ingredients she needed."
Clark concurs that a major difference between Austin then and now is the availability of quality ingredients. "In the Sixties, you couldn't even get olive oil in Austin except at a seafood restaurant that used to be on Sixth Street. For many things, you had to go to Paletta's in San Antonio."
When I asked how many students she had taught, Clark estimated 1,000 students over 20 years. "What people in my classes maybe didn't realize is that I was learning from them. Everyone in my classes came for a reason, and they were a gift to me."
Clark was introduced in 1982 to Iron Horse owners Audrey and Barry Sterling; they invited her to come cook for that fall harvest season. She did this for three seasons -- six weeks of preparing lunch daily for 30 people, the winery staff and invited visitors, who included many restaurateurs. She smiled, "My time at Iron Horse was about as perfect an experience as one could have.
"While I continued to teach, I catered for 12 years," Clark said. "Before that, I'd probably cooked for no more than 40 or 50 people at a time. Then, after one phone call, I found myself doing a party for 400. With few exceptions, I catered only for businesses, both here and around the country, serving from 100 to 1,000 people. A good memory for me was at a dinner at the LBJ Library when the wife of Lew Wasserman [the Hollywood mogul] called me out to the table to ask, 'How did you do those carrots?' It meant so much that the simply but carefully prepared carrots were what got her attention."
Bradford recalls one occasion when she flew with Clark to New York to do a special anniversary dinner at a five-story penthouse overlooking Central Park. "I remember us arriving by taxi and walking through the beautiful lobby loaded down with five huge crates of spinach. I also remember making spun sugar all over that penthouse kitchen," she says. "Working with Ann was always fun and interesting, even when the work was hard and the hours were long. We'd take Aretha Franklin dance breaks to maintain the energy."
Clark's first book, Ann Clark's Fabulous Fish, was published in 1987 to all-around favorable reviews, including ones in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Her Quick Cuisine came out in 1993 to equal acclaim. Both books were based on simple, earthy French country and regional cooking, and they included not only recipes, but also valuable basic cooking techniques. (Neither Fabulous Fish nor Quick Cuisine remains in print, but both are available through online used-book sites.)
Clark's classes, books, and parties led to extensive coverage about her in such publications as House and Garden, Food and Wine, Redbook, Texas Home, Bon Appetit, Food Arts, Wine Spectator, Austin Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Texas Monthly, and the French magazine Saveur.
"I've also taught classes to architects about what's important in a home kitchen," she continues. "I explain about the two sets of functions: One is preparing snacks and small meals and doing cleanup; the other is performing the major cooking projects. In an optimally functional kitchen, both tasks can go on without interfering with each other."
She talks about how the camaraderie of the kitchen resonates with people and about the fundamental satisfaction we derive from cooking for and offering hospitality to others. But, she says, "Giving and receiving is together a completed action; the act of receiving is as important as giving. When people come to eat with me, my rule is, don't touch a thing; allow me to serve you."
The roots of Clark's commitment to hospitality run deep. She says, "My mother loved to cook, and she cooked a lot. My family always had a wonderful time at the table. We lived above my father's office, and we'd regularly have spur-of-the-moment guests at dinner. Also, blizzards are a way of life in South Dakota, and it often happened that my father would find people stranded on the road and bring them home. We'd put them up and feed them, sometimes cooking in the fireplace.
"Once, when I was 14, the governor and his pilot dropped by unexpectedly to visit my father. My parents were out of town, so I invited the governor to stay for dinner with me and my siblings. I made pork chops and baked potatoes, and we had watermelon for dessert."
I asked about her current involvements. "I'm really more interested in hospitality and foodways these days than in the actual production of food, although I still like to cook for my family and friends. I'm on the board of Texas Folklife Resources. I give talks occasionally to book clubs and libraries. I'm learning to paint and draw."
And what is she cooking lately? "I really like soups and stews, and I'm particularly interested in Italian soups at the moment; the way they are put together, the way things are combined and cut, they're different than French soups. I'm also interested in main-course salads; I'm trying to eat lighter in the evenings. Every three or four months, I seem to have a new project to research; not a day goes by that I don't learn something. Food is great that way."
And finally, does Ann Clark have any advice for aspiring cooks? "Read, practice, find mentors, and be a little humble in the process. It takes just as much time to cook badly as it does to cook well. So, why not learn to cook well?"
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