The first time I met Claire was about four years ago, on a trip upstate to visit a farm. The farm is owned by the restaurateurs of the place where Claire was a cook at the time, and I was there documenting the intersection between the farm and the restaurant.
I immediately knew that I liked her. Not because she was overly friendly in a suffocating way, but because there was an air of mystery about her. She wasn’t just giving herself away, and I foundthat intriguing. I think in a lot of ways I’m the same when first approached, so I felt a kind of kinship that could be explored over time.
After the trip I saw Claire at the restaurant on multiple occasions, and I got to know her a bit more. I saw a cook who throughout the years had seasoned herself to life in the kitchen, with all that that entails. Hard working, taking no BS from anyone. Despite her small stature something about her beckoned respect, but what I noticed the most was her way of showing others kindness and respect. That’s not a quality you learn, that’s something you possess in your core.
After a while she accepted a job elsewhere, and our paths sort of went in different directions. I kept track, of course, and when it became apparent that she would be heading up a new restaurant in Clinton Hill, I paid extra attention. Partly in anticipation of a new spot not-too-long from my house, but mostly because I was excited to see what genius she would - in the role of head chef - bring to the table. Quite literally.
Claire is protective of her restaurant, and is not interested in too much (media) attention that can potentially distract from the experience that the diners should make for themselves, when visiting. I was therefore obviously happy when she agreed to meet me at Otway a few weeks ago, for tea and a long overdue chat.
From the outside Otway - located on Fulton and St. James Pl - looks inviting with its bright facade, large windows, and two wooden benches on either side of the entrance, giving it a kind of homey front porch feel. Once inside you’re welcomed into a serene, sun drenched room accentuated by greenery and retro knick knacks - and a cheese cart! - providing the space with a very comfortable, generous vibe. I found Claire in the adjacent kitchen (yes, you’re actually allowed to have a non-open kitchen in a Brooklyn restaurant!) where she was singlehandedly prepping for that night’s dinner rush. I emphasize the word singlehandedly, because Claire is, above all, a cook, who loves to do exactly that; cook. Although maybe officially going by the title of “head chef”, these are not words that she particularly identifies with. She’s part of a team and will man every station happily, during prep as well as service. It’s very apparent that she takes a fundamental pride in her trade, she’s respectful of the hard work, dedication, and personality traits that are required in order to obtain the skills to cook professionally for others - she refers to the kitchen as The Shop - and this is also highly reflected in her menu.
Otway is a Bistro. And at a Bistro, you eat dinner. The kind of sit-down dinner that is carefully thought out and put together according to the knowledge and skills of a person in the know. The menu is set, it doesn’t change on a whim, and Claire is very mindful about not accommodating guest-requested changes and swap-outs. It’s become common practice that a diner can pretty much walk into any establishment and order exactly what they feel like, completely negating what said establishment is actually all about. A seafood allergic will comfortably walk into a seafood restaurant, expecting a several-course meal completely stripped of all things seafood, and then go home and write an angry Yelp review because the food didn’t meet the expectations, and they left the restaurant hungry. Claire wants to secure the best possible time for everyone who eats at her restaurant, and her life-long experience and humble, intelligent understanding of cooking allows her to expect a certain level of respect for the basic values of dining out, from both her guests and her team.
Have you always wanted to be a cook?
In my home town, you were told to pick your job/ profession/ trade very early on. That way, all classes from middle school on, could be tailored to your choice of work. Mostly, it was a way to get students to pick a trade, because the majority of them wouldn’t be attending college. So around the age of 14, I chose cook. I took my first job as a dishwasher and prep cook at a Country Club /Golf Course, and went to a trade school for Culinary Arts for my last two years of high school. Basically, being a cook is all I know.
What inspires your creativity outside of the kitchen?
I am a hoarder of books. There are piles of them all over my apartment. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t still buy books! I can always go back and reference an ingredient, a trend, a technique.
I go on really long walks. It’s my way of decompressing and having a quiet moment to work out the day's problems. Taking walks let’s my mind just wander, and helps me re-set. For me, creativity will fade very quickly when I force it. If I have to write a menu, or have to change a dish, ideas won’t come easily. I have to want to do it or want to make something. Although at the end of the day I still think I haven’t had a good idea yet!
I still invest in myself, and my education. I still take classes, go on trails and do stages. Just because I'm in charge of a kitchen, doesn't mean I can just stop learning.
Who are your heroes inside and outside of the kitchen?
Finding people to inspire me and teach me, when I first started out, was very difficult. It was a very small pool of mediocrity in my first kitchens. But there were a few bad ass line cooks, that made it seem so glamorous. It was a life that with the right set of skills, common sense and a bit of debauchery, I could buy into.
I always looked to my parents, because they taught me about accountability, discipline, ethics and the love of a hard day's work.
If there was one thing in the restaurant industry you could change, what would that be?
I love this industry. Being a cook isn't just what I do, it's who I am. We are an industry steeped in tradition and hard work. It's very militant at times, because this industry needs the structure. I wouldn't change a thing when it comes to the kitchen. It attracts a specific person, and has the beautiful ability to weed out those who don't truly want it.
The only thing I would change is narrowing the gap between pay for back and front of the house. It's gotten to the point where servers can walk away with half a weeks pay for a cook, in one night of tips alone. As an independent restaurant, it's going to be very difficult trying to figure out how to go about doing it. But it's our responsibility to take care of our staff.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future, as a cook and a person?
I tend to think in small picture goals these days. It doesn't mean that I don't have dreams or aspirations, but being a working cook, on a station every day, is what I'm worried about right now. Will my delivery arrive, will my porter show up? If those things both happen, I consider it a great day.
My goals right now, in no particular order are: changing the fish dish, utilize carrot tops, give my pastry cook a night off, find a better parchment paper, get a haircut.
Otway is open Wednesday through Monday for dinner. Go say hi!