FEATURE: Buckingham pastry chef returns to her roots for one-off show

Claire Clark
Claire Clark

A baking pandemic has gripped the British public and won’t let go.

Evidenced by the tabloid drama of a popular baking TV show in flux, the public has fallen in love with the countries pastry chefs and grinds to a halt to watch, what is now, the sport of baking.

Claire Clark in the kitchen

Claire Clark in the kitchen

But, Claire Clark doesn’t see herself as a rockstar.

She said: “I think that’s a bit far, I don’t know many professional pastry chefs that are rockstars - if any.

“I think for ordinary people who enjoy baking and who go on shows like Bake Off and actually do become ‘rockstars’, it’s all because they enjoy baking so much, probably more than the professionals.”

Having starred as a judge on BBC Two’s Bake Off spin-off: Crème De la Crème, Claire is no stranger to the performance, however, and takes her cue from experiences speaking in front of her local church in Tingewick, where her father David Hemsley was the reverend.

One of Claire's cakes

One of Claire's cakes

She said: “I don’t think I’m a natural at all but I’ve been used to speaking in church from a young age, so it doesn’t daunt me to get up and talk to people.

“Sometimes you get better reactions from some crowds than others, sometimes they’re very quiet.

“I try and make it as enjoyable as possible, but it’s an insight into the professional world of pastry so I like to share some stories.”

Stories which explore her time baking in California, at the michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant, and her experiences catering events attended by politicians at the House of Commons.

Claire joked that the palettes of politicians weren’t particularly refined: “The politicians I served were quite young but very respectful and they do talk to you like a normal person would.

“They do, however, have simple needs.

“They like rice pudding, hardly gourmet but it was great to work there.”

Claire fondly remembers small, special moments spanning a career throughout which she struggles to identify one, single highlight.

Little moments include her time cheffing for the Queen Mother at Claridge’s, and her delight in hearing The Teddy Bear’s Picnic played specifically on the piano to signal the royal’s arrival.

Memories like these seem a world away from humble beginnings in Tingewick.

Having attended the local primary, Round Hill Middle School and Waddesdon C of E before taking a City and Guilds catering course at Aylesbury College, Claire’s start was certainly in Bucks - but it wasn’t originally all about pastry.

She said: “I wanted to be a musician as a child, but baking is so creative anyway.

“I liked music and arts so there was quite a bit of culture through my mum and dad early on, so that’s been reflected in the creative side of my cooking.

“Once I got to college, one day a week was spent baking and it was the best day of the week.

“I think I was the only one who enjoyed it.

“To be able to take a pound of sugar and be able to blow it into a horse shape, for example, it’s so creative.”

But it takes a delicate touch, a skill Claire hopes to pass on to her students in her latest venture: running the Claire Clark Academy for Patissiere Excellence, in partnership with Milton Keynes College.

She said: “Full time students started this week, and it’s going really well, they’re just getting initiated.

“As everything will be new to them.

“You have to walk before you can fly and to actually bake anything you’ve got to know the tools of the trade.”

Starting out herself in Oxford in 1979, Claire remembers the challenge of establishing herself in the kitchen and the adversity of breaking through in what was, still, a male-dominated profession.

She said: “I found myself being the single girl in the kitchen.

“Things were different then and it’s the same in many professions, you have to prove yourself and once you prove yourself it’s like role reversal.

“Once I was more established, being the only woman in the kitchen became kind of special.

“I became the mother of the kitchen once I was more accepted.

“As long as you’re willing to put the work in, things take a turn.”

With her mother still based in the town, Claire finds herself regularly making the trip from her home in Haversham and hopes residents who wish to pick her brain take the time to stop for a chat.

She said: “I’ll always be in the centre at Waitrose or at the library, so I’m always happy to speak to people, of course come and speak to me.

“It was actually my old English teacher, Mrs Johnston, who asked me to come back to give this demonstration, so it’s a real pleasure to stay in touch with the local life.”

Claire will be appearing for one night only at The Film Place in Buckingham on September 26, in support of Inner Wheel Club and their chosen charities.

For tickets e-mail suedjohnston45@gmail.com or call 07793825146.