“Was there life before Gramercy?” Claudia Fleming laughs my question about her training back at me. “I think I was born there.”
But there was. Life before and after her nine-year tenure as the celebrated pastry chef of Gramercy Tavern, during the era that permanently installed that restaurant at the top of tourist itineraries in New York and elevated the statuses of chef Tom Colicchio and restaurateur Danny Meyer from savants to luminaries. Her desserts were a philosophical wrecking ball that toppled the spiraling spun-sugar artifices and architectural pastry excess of mid-nineties New York.
“I was putting two things on a plate: there’s dessert, you can eat it, you don’t have to deconstruct it,” she tells me. She is downplaying her virtuosic skill, ignoring how hard it is to make simple food beautiful enough to be served with nothing to hide behind, and absolutely not addressing how she yanked New York restaurant desserts out of the eighties and into the modern, seasonally-informed style that is still dominant today.
Not that she would take the credit, sitting there on a weather-beaten folding chair in the grassy green backyard of the inn on Long Island that she now runs with her husband, Gerry Hayden. Claudia won the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef award at the turn of the century, after nominations two years in a row. Bon Appétit lauded her in the pre-Bro Appétit era (Best Pastry Chef, 2002); she was routinely fêted by Food & Wine until a falling out with the magazine’s editors around 2006. Her name has receded from the conversation about pastry except when chefs like Brooks Headley (of Del Posto) or Nicole Krasinski (of State Bird Provisions) cite the influence of her desserts or her out-of-print cookbook, The Last Course, co-written with Melissa Clark.
“I don’t care about dessert,” she says.
She is telling me this while I am stuffing my face full of her pastries, scarfing them like a sunburned little fat boy in a pie-eating competition. You know the Pinterest-perfect confections of all the artisanal pastry shops that have opened in the last decade? Right now one of Claudia Fleming’s crostatas is lifting its leg on those amateur-hour concoctions in a shaming show of dominance. When I was a dumb kid just moved to New York from the Midwest, anytime somebody’s parents came to town with money to throw down, we’d make them take us to Gramercy, and the desserts—as plain-Jane as they pretended to be—always hit me like the moment when Dorothy’s world goes from sepia-toned to color, or when Kelly LeBrock came alive in Weird Science.
“My best days are behind me,” Claudia tells me, dismissing the flaky, buttery evidence to the contrary that has made a mess of my shirt. “Let people take the mantle and do what they’re going to do. It’s a young person’s game. To be good at it you can’t really have too much other stuff going on. I used to go to sleep thinking about things and wake up thinking about flavor combinations. Do you know what a luxury that it is? You’re sealed off from shit—good shit, bad shit. But I don’t feel competitive any more. I don’t have the fire in my belly, you know?” she says sincerely. “Life happens.”
Fleming was born on Long Island (“Brentwood, right in the middle—horrible place, not at all nice”) but spent as much time in New York City as she possibly could. By the seventies, Fleming, in her late teens, had moved there and was studying dance. She eventually landed at the American Ballet Theatre at the time when “all the Russians were defecting,” and she got to share the same hallways as Nureyev, Baryshnikov, and Twyla Tharp. (At fifty-five, after nearly three decades of professional ice cream- and cookie-making, she still has the lithe build of a dancer.)
She gave herself until twenty-five to “make it” in a major dance company, waitressing a bit along the way to pay the bills. She was working at a dive restaurant when a coworker’s husband introduced her to some guys who were opening a restaurant on the Upper East Side. “I wasn’t in the food world,” she says. “I wasn’t reading magazines or anything. I was just digging the restaurant business, and it turned out to be Jonathan Waxman and Jams.”
Jams is a restaurant of legendary excess and wide influence; Claudia was on the opening team in 1984. It was the first place where a real, in-the-flesh disciple of Alice Waters—Jonathan Waxman, the first chef at Chez Panisse—brought (some) of the ideas of the covenant of Berkeley to New York. “So we had free-range chicken. Organic baby vegetables. Laura Chenel goat cheese—who knew about goat cheese at the time?—all FedExed from California every day.”
I had a hard time picking my jaw up off the lawn. This is a business where the talk of margins is typically accompanied by modifiers like “razor-thin” or “non-existent.” Really? FedExed?
“Those were the heady days of grilled chicken and french fries for $32,” Fleming says, citing Jams’ most famous dish. (That would be a $61 dish of chicken and fries in 2013.) “It was fun, fun, fun. There were Hockneys on the wall and Ginori china on the table. The waitresses wore white bucks. Mick Jagger came for dinner,” she recalls. “Jonathan and Melvyn”—the chef and his business partner, Melvyn Master—“would rack up a $10,000 lunch bill in a month at La Goulue. They were drinking Cristal at breakfast.”
Fleming eventually became the office manager, and was often told to lock up the credit cards, only to be bribed into releasing them when she was invited to come along to lunch, too. But the bright-lights-big-city excess isn’t why Jams was an important station on her journey. It was the food, which was called Californian at the time. “There was grilled pork tenderloin in a salad,” she told me with honest reverence and still-preserved enthusiasm, even though that sounds très Olive Garden today. When she saw I was unmoved, I think she felt the generation gap between us. “People weren’t doing that at the time. I come from an Italian family, so good food was always in my life—but not different good food.”
Then there was the kitchen, where three women held positions of power. “Stephanie, Helen—who was later married to Alfred Portale—and Gale. I loved them. It was very much a man’s world, and they made me think I could do it,” she said of kitchen work, which she was slowly being seduced by. “They were incredibly inspirational. Every bit as effective and efficient as a man, especially Jonathan, who was anything but effective and efficient.”
She still has great affection for Waxman—now the chef-owner of Barbuto, in the West Village—as does nearly anyone I’ve ever met who has worked with him. He knows everybody, or somebody who knows the person you’re looking for. He regularly helped open doors for Claudia as she made her way. But once it was clear that the cocaine-fueled rocket ship that was Jams wasn’t going to stay aloft forever, Claudia found new employ as a server at Union Square Café. This was shortly after it opened, when Danny Meyer was still working the floor and wet behind the ears, before he became a burger baron. “He was Mr. Nerd compared to the two guys I’d been working for,” she says, “and the food wasn’t great.” But the restaurant was still white-hot.
Fleming dabbled in the kitchen at Jams and, as she neared thirty, realized she wanted to get more serious about it. As she saw it, waiting tables was a dead-end game. She nurtured a daydream of a sandwich shop that supplied the jitney buses that connect the city to Long Island, and she enrolled at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School when it was still just an uptown townhouse, before it became the Institute of Culinary Education. But she found school to be a waste of time—she preferred to learn on the job. She split her time between the kitchen and the dining room at Union Square Café, then staged at Montrachet under Deborah Ponzek, who righted the course of that restaurant after the departure of its opening chef, David Bouley, and kept its three stars from the New York Times.
When Union Square Café needed an assistant pastry chef, she took the job, and has never left the pastry kitchen. “It seemed like the fastest way to get somewhere, and a lot better than duking it out with the twenty-year-old boys on the line. I liked the autonomy—it’s so separate from the kitchen. You have your own plates and your own space. I can’t even handle the knives and fire and boys and…” She makes a sound indicating she is, and was, too old to deal with their immaturity.
After Union Square she went to work at Tribeca Grill, where she reported to Gerry Hayden, the man she would marry a little more than a decade later. Gerry is the sort of cook’s cook who mastered both the pastry and savory sides of the kitchen, and could run either. (At Tribeca Grill, he did, under the stewardship of executive chef Don Pintabona.) He was a perfect fit for Claudia, a de facto pastry chef, not someone born to it.
Soon enough, phone calls started to trickle in: pastry-chef job offers. Even though she’d barely been in the kitchen a couple years, she’d worked at the right places, met the right people. “I was like, I don’t know anything.” So she decided to get serious about the profession and get a real education, so she didn’t always feel like she was treading water.
“I’d always wanted to go work with Nancy Silverton, because she was my idol,” she says. “Jimmy Brinkley, the pastry chef at Jams, had worked for her [at Campanile, the groundbreaking restaurant Silverton and Mark Peel ran in Los Angeles] and he talked about her all the time. And her first book was what really got me turned on to pastry. She had worked for Wolfgang, so she did this really French stuff but Americanized it, and that was really appealing to me.”
Waxman arranged an audience with Nancy Silverton over the phone. “I called Nancy and I asked her a question that, when people ask me ,I just want to spit on them,” she says, taking a second to pitch her voice up to helium height for maximum annoyingness. “‘So what is your favorite dessert?’
“And Nancy said to me, ‘A ripe peach.’
“And I didn’t get it, not at all,” Claudia says. It’s a telling nugget about New York restaurant culture around 1990: California had rediscovered nature and found the writings of Richard Olney and probably Patience Gray. It had embraced simplicity and what we generally shorthand as “Mediterranean” ideals. New York was still chained to the hierarchical, male-centric conception of kitchens and chefs; manipulation trumped simpler pleasures on the plate.
Claudia had been hounding Maury Rubin to hire her at the City Bakery, New York’s hottest bakery at that time. While he repeatedly told her no (“He said I’d take everything he taught me and leave”), her persistence eventually got him halfway: he wouldn’t hire her, but he would set her up with a baker he’d studied with in France.
And so, at thirty-three, Claudia went east, to Paris.
Claudia arrived; she got an apartment in a lesser arrondissement; she worked; she joined a French-English conversation group that met over wine. The group netted her a French boyfriend who’d be less than a footnote in her history if he hadn’t greeted her one evening with the news that he’d secured her a stage at Fauchon.
Fauchon was a great French brand that was heading toward an era of protracted torpor. One thing that elongated that protraction was the hiring of boy genius Pierre Hermé. Claudia arrived four or five years after Hermé had taken over; he was “up in the office at that point.” They became friends much later in life—at that juncture, she was down in the kitchen, the lone woman working alongside a legion of men.
“There were forty boys and me. In Europe, cooking is a trade. Chefs, schmefs; it’s for people who can’t go to college. This was not the brain trust of France. They were crude and rude and talked about girls and cars. So I was with these fifteen-to-twenty-five-year-old boys, and I was thirty-three at the time and completely invisible. Like I was a grandma, and nobody wanted to talk to me, answer questions, anything.”
While she was happy to be apprenticing to one of the great pastry chefs of all time, she began to realize that had she gone to work for Nancy Silverton in California, at least someone would have answered her questions.
She doubled down on work to make up for it. “The morning shift was from six to two,” she says, “then the afternoon shift from two to six. I was staying the whole time. It’s a factory job. It’s fabrication. I loved doing that; I still do. It’s the kind of person that I am. It’s about cranking it out at a certain point.”
Claudia’s body language changes when she talks about fabrication, about making and making and making. “This is a creative field, but that doesn’t mean you get to create all the time. You have to do the rote thing—you’ve got to practice your scales, you have to know all your positions. I like to tell kids there’s so much opportunity in repetition—it means you can do it better this time than you did last time. You can always do it better. And until you’ve done it a thousand times, you haven’t done it. Until you can fix it, you haven’t done it at all. You get to make it the best, and then make it better. You get to understand it inside and out, you learn it well enough that you can teach other people. The parallels between cooking and dance are all there: the repetition, don’t question the guy in charge, wait until an appropriate time to ask a question.”
Does she enjoy repetition? I wonder aloud.
“That’s just who I am. I like to ask people, ‘Do you like monotony? How about working when everybody’s having a good time? Weekends, night, no money, no insurance, no vacation. Do you want a dirty, yucky job where you won’t get so much respect from anyone outside the kitchen?’”
She did, so she stayed at Fauchon for six months, working for free. The most puzzling part of her presence for her coworkers was that she wasn’t interested in cakes. “They thought I was weird because the elite do gâteaux, and I was more interested in petits fours and doughs.” Then she dropped a little bomb: “I don’t like cake.”
I probed her on this point and found that she really does not like cakes—particularly the bizarre custard-and-gelatin-layered affairs that were the height of fashion when she was in Paris—and has worked hard to avoid making them over the years. “I just don’t get them. I love making custards, frozen or baked or eggless or whatever, and doughs—pies, puff pastry, croissant. And I love making crostatas. If I could make a living just making crostatas, I’d be the happiest person alive.”
She had one more stop she wanted to make after Hermé: Così. “I had ripped this article by Colman Andrews,” who would later found Saveur, “about a place called Così, where this man baked the bread fresh every day and had marinated sardines and fresh artichokes and prosciutto and all these beautiful ingredients, and people made their own sandwiches.”
Her dream of a sandwich shop that supplied the jitney was still alive. “That’s what I wanted to do in the States: open something like Così.” She went and accosted Drew Harré, the chef-owner, and told him she practically needed to work there, that she wanted to bring the place back to the States, that she’d work for free. Harré, a New Zealander who had adopted Paris as his home, said, “I’m not French. I’ll pay you.” And she stayed until her visa ran out.
She was planning on returning to Paris to work with Harré, who wanted her to stay on and help him grow the business, but a boyfriend convinced her to stay in the States. She started working in New York kitchens again, and one night Tom Valenti—another name almost lost to time, but a giant of the era—gave her a ride home from a party and told her she should call Tom Colicchio, fresh off of a star turn at Mondrian, because he and Danny Meyer were opening a new place together.
It was too high profile. It was too much pressure. She didn’t want to work for Danny again—she very much liked and respected him, but it felt like a step backward. She can rattle off a lot of reasons that she wasn’t right for the job and the job wasn’t right for her.
And, of course, none of those things were true.
These days, media fanfare is de rigueur for the opening of a restaurant that has the potential to do more than suck. If an unlikely alliance of rising stars—which is what the partnership of Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio was at the time—were forming for a restaurant project, Eater would install a webcam and embed a reporter, and we’d know every time a nail was pounded or a chair delivered.
Gramercy got the 1994 version of that. Peter Kaminsky wrote a multi-page cover story for New York magazine that hit newsstands opening day and trumpeted Gramercy as an attempt to redefine the four-star restaurant. It set up enormous expectations—though it wasn’t as if the pair hadn’t courted them. In the years since Claudia first worked for him, Danny Meyer had gone from a wide-eyed aspirant to a bona fide restaurateur, recognized as one of the savviest and most sincerely innovative since Joe Baum.
About Colicchio, Fleming says, “He’s very well spoken and very intelligent. But I was not the least bit charmed by him when I met him.” Colicchio had just returned from cooking at Michel Bras, and after hiring Fleming, he spread out the menus and book he’d brought from there. “He was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Everything was different, everything had herbs in it.”
A version of Bras’s molten chocolate cake went on the opening menu along with a panna cotta. Ruth Reichl, reviewing the restaurant for the Times, called it “a trembling mound of cream that seems to be held together with a wish.”
Over the years, buttermilk panna cotta became a Claudia Fleming signature, and one of the most imitated dishes from her repertoire. “I got the recipe for it in Australian Vogue,” Fleming tells me matter-of-factly when I ask about the origin of the dish. “I made it once when I was at Luxe, the restaurant I was at before I went to Gramercy. I ate it and thought: this is gonna be a thing. This is gonna be my thing. Those Australian food magazines were awesome, so way ahead of the U.S. Everything was fresh and easy and awesome.”
In ten or so years of writing about chefs, I can count on the fingers of my elbow how many times one has copped to the source of one of their dishes so plainly. “For me nothing is original,” Fleming tells me.
When pressed, she’ll half-admit to feeling like an under-credited influence herself, though she hides it well. “If you can do it better than me, then hat’s off to you. It’s fucking food. And in my case, it’s not even food, it’s dessert! You don’t need it. It’s an afterthought—I mean I love that about it: you have to choose to have dessert.”
She delineates what she did—which was giving center stage to dishes that existed in some way shape or form before she served them—and what followed. “It’s easy for me to say nothing is original. Because I was just working with inspiration from other people, not going into a lab and trying to literally recreate the wheel. That is some crazy shit.
“I saw a YouTube video of the dessert course at Alinea, where they serve the dessert all over the table,” she says of a recent-ish development at Grant Achatz’s avant-garde restaurant in Chicago, where a bare tabletop is painted and piled—in an elegant way!—with the dessert course.
“And I’m like, ‘Please, God, don’t let that catch on.’ That is going to be a fucking disaster. But people are going to start imitating it. In the short term it’s gonna be people who think it’s a good idea, but it won’t be in the right hands. In ten years, it’ll be at Applebee’s. How about when everybody starts squirting Hershey’s all over the table?”
Of course, all that remains is something for us to look forward to in the future—Gramercy opened before the first foam ever spurted out of a siphon gun. Her near-decade there made Claudia a chef. “I would call Tom my greatest mentor. I idolized Nancy and Pierre, but I learned the most from him. He would come over to my station and take stuff and use it, which was secretly thrilling for me.
I learned everything from him. About what’s good. And how to cook. A lot of cooks call me a cook’s pastry chef—because I don’t do froufrou and I cook a lot of fruit—but I was taking a lot of my cues from the line because I was so insecure about my pastry skills. So I started doing things that people didn’t do—which sounds ridiculous to say now—like to sauté fruit à la minute. I was covering the fact that I didn’t know what was going on.”
Claudia was in charge of a ten-person pastry team that operated seven days a week—two services, doing five hundred covers on most days. She created and oversaw eighteen desserts between the two menus, plus petits fours and the like. Late in her tenure there, she replaced the tasting-menu petits fours with a basket of just-made donuts, and it was news. “Petits fours can be grotesque at the end of a big meal—they end up in the trash half the time. By the time I left, it was a basket of tiny, warm, just-made donuts. I wanted it to be something enticing.” These days, at the North Fork Table & Inn, she serves a single house-made mallomar. Nobody’s written about it. “It’d be gossip at church on a good Sunday,” she quips.
“Look, I was the ‘it’ girl for a minute. But it was absolutely because of where I worked. Did I suck at what I did? No. I was good at it. But I worked for Tom and Danny. If I was just Claudia Fleming and I worked somewhere else, I could have been ten times better and no one would have ever heard of me. Tom Colicchio never took credit for what I did, and he always mentioned me, and that’s a huge part of it. Anytime they asked Tom to do a fundraiser, he’d say, ‘We’ll do dessert,’ and he’d take me. I’d do all the work, and he would go and play. But look where it got me: everybody knew who I was.”
One year at the James Beard award ceremony, Claudia ran into her old chef and friend Gerry Hayden. They got to talking, and a friendship started. It would later became a real relationship. After years of not settling down, she was finally ready, and she and Gerry got married in 2001. They both worked like maniacs, both liked drinking at the bar at the Red Cat, and, soon enough, both wanted a family.
Her seriousness about her relationship was a big part of the reason she left Gramercy. The other was Craft, Coliccho’s new restaurant project just around the corner. “I remember Tom saying it wasn’t worth it to upset the apple cart and have me go do Craft restaurant,” Claudia tells me, biting her lip. “Fucker. He left me behind. That was so sad. I’ll never forgive him for that. My life would have been so different—I would have actually been an executive pastry chef, I would’ve been traveling, I’d still be in the city… ” She trails off, still hurt, still feeling abandoned.
Karen DeMasco, who worked for Claudia for two years, was installed as pastry chef at Craft, and with Tom absent, Claudia’s tenure at Gramercy drew to a close.
THE EAST END
During that whole time at Gramercy, Claudia’s sandwich fixation never quite cured itself. She was offered a job at Pret a Manger, a chain from London that had just arrived in New York, and took it. “I wanted to be married and have a family; I thought I wanted a different life. I spent six months in meetings,” she says of Pret a Manger, which she left after those six months, seeing that she’d never really have any effect on the food. “And where was I gonna go? There was no better restaurant than Gramercy. There was nowhere better to go. There were no better guys to work for.”
Plus, she says, she felt like she’d had “her turn”—that it was time to support Gerry, who had toiled for too little credit building up the names of guys like Charlie Palmer (first at the River Café, and then during two separate, long spells at Aureole). He got his own place, Amuse, soon after, and Claudia worked the door, not the stand mixer. But Gerry’s relationship with his partner, Steve Tzolis, soured, and Tzolis bought out Gerry’s interest.
The couple landed in Southold, in the far reaches of the North Fork, two hours east of the city. Claudia was commuting, consulting on the pastry menu at Five Points, but soon enough a plan hatched to open Gerry’s dream restaurant out on Long Island and cut their ties with the city. “The dream was his own restaurant—which wasn’t gonna happen in the city, because who was gonna give him the money?”
They found a restaurant and inn at a price they could almost manage. They tore the place apart, put in a poshly comfortable dining room, and opened it in 2006, serving dinner on the weekends to city refugees and wine-country tourists who needed a place to eat or sleep. A few years later, Claudia installed a food truck in the parking lot—the truck was so fugly, they ended up putting a trompe l’oeil-painted fence around it to help it blend into the landscaping—and started serving lunch and pastries.
In 2011, Gerry found he was having trouble holding a pan. He thought he had a pinched nerve, and so he did what good cooks do, which is work through the pain. Even in his mid-forties, Hayden was the kind of chef who wanted to be on the line, cooking. His mold was cast when that was what cooks did, and aspired to do.
When the muscle between his thumb and forefinger started disappearing, and grasping pans became near impossible, he went to the doctor and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease. “ALS is a degenerative muscle disease—your senses are fine. It’s so weird. There’s no cure and no treatment, and when you’re diagnosed you get a three-to-five-year life expectancy. Ultimately what happens is your lungs, which are dependent on muscle, stop working, so you can’t breathe,” Claudia tells me matter of factly as we drive from her restaurant to a nearby apple stand to pick fruit for that night’s dinner service. “Oddly enough,” she adds, “the two muscles that aren’t affected are the heart and the eyes.”
Gerry and Claudia had finally opened his dream restaurant. They’d tried to have a family but now fully had each other—Gerry quit drinking before the North Fork Inn opened, and Claudia barely drinks anymore as a result. Now there was this to contend with, and a business that requires an extraordinary amount of daily labor from the two of them to keep running. Some old friends—like Don Pintabona, the chef of Tribeca Grill, where Claudia and Gerry met—have stepped up and stepped in, trying to help carry the load where Gerry can’t any more.
This summer, disregarding his condition, Gerry organized and launched a Friday morning farmers’ market. Local oystermen, ranchers, orchards, and fruit farms now gather to sell to the community and weekenders in the parking lot of the inn. But in the six weeks leading up to my interview with Claudia, Gerry had experienced a steep decline.
“The wheelchair was huge because once you get in, you’re not getting out. He was dreading it. Dreading it. Like, didn’t want to live. But then when we got it, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so much easier.’ It’s like you never really know when you’ve had enough,” Claudia says. She smiles for a second: “Even in a wheelchair, he’s in his kitchen more than most chefs!
“But he can’t lift his arm to feed himself more than a few bites. He can’t throw the covers off if he’s warm. At a certain point I assume that your life is so consumed with just trying to breathe that you can’t think about asking for help. The ego is just completely gone.
“That has probably been as hard or harder than stopping drinking. He never asked anybody for help for anything, ever. So for him to ask for help is very hard. The amount of work that he’s had to put in on being okay with that—I mean, nobody works harder. He is always trying to get his head around something. I can’t even imagine. I’m living this, and I don’t even understand it. It’s too bizarre.”
She wells up as she tells me about a recent ALS benefit she cooked for at Hearth in Manhattan, and how she spent the next night in the city to tape a television segment and snuck out to eat at Blue Ribbon, an old haunt, by herself. “Gerry handles this”—there are not words, so she omits them—“it’s really amazing. I’d be a wreck. I don’t know what he’s found.
“How the fuck am I going to support myself for the next who knows how many years? Am I employable? I’m fifty-five years old. That’s old to be, like, looking for work. It’s kind of scary.
“My dad died really young; he died when he was fifty-six. He worked really hard. He was a freaking purchasing agent for a school district, but he took his job so seriously. I was like, ‘Dad, you can’t get so worked up about stuff—your job does not define you!’ Ha! Really? And he just looked sad, because it did define him, and it’s all he knew how to do. And it seems hilarious in retrospect that I had the gall to say that to him when I did the same exact thing.”
She says she has friends who can help out, and she’s talking mainly about Mike and Mary Mraz, the couple that runs the inn and the front-of-house at the restaurant. In my brief interactions with them, they seem extraordinarily patient, capable, and kind; Claudia spoils Mike and Mary’s boys in hopes that when they go through that disobedient phase of their teenage years, they’ll come running to her.
“And I do love what I do,” she says. “I told Mary, all I want to do is come in the morning, see an empty cart, fill it up, and go home. I just like making shit.”
With that, Claudia had to check on dinner service, before going home to be with Gerry. I went to catch the jitney and, for a few hours back to the city, watched sandy cornfields give way to browned-out towns until New York rose up, twinkling in the distance.