Immigrants' Daughter Americanized In The Kitchen

Gillian Clark used to be in the stomach-churning field of marketing. But she headed to cooking school after realizing that creating art at her stove calmed her more than chugging antacids — and became a chef.

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Richard Wrangham studies evolution and cooking; Gillian Clark lives it. Her evolution took her from the stress of a marketing job to the bliss of running a restaurant. NPR's Allison Keyes profiles this French-trained, West Indian American chef. It's the latest installment in our occasional series, Immigrants' Children.

ALLISON KEYES: Chef Gillian Clark sees almost everything through the lens of food.

Ms. GILLIAN CLARK (Chef): I don't think there's any food that I don't consider, that isn't part of my culture and part of, you know, of what I think of in terms of, you know, being a black, West Indian America.

KEYES: Clark's paternal grandfather moved to a coldwater flat in Harlem from Panama around 1948, followed by his wife and two children, Clark's mother and aunt. After, as Clark says, working like a dog, her grandmother was able to buy a house in Queens.

Ms. CLARK: She bought that house and bought a number of houses, actually, and that's really, like, how she made her money was she invested in property, would rent her houses out, and she would help anybody out. I remember there was always, like, somebody living in her basement apartment.

KEYES: Clark's father immigrated from Panama in the 1950s after a stint as a typesetter in the army. He later became a social worker while Clark's mother became a microbiologist. She says her parents tried hard to integrate the family into this country's culture, even to the point of her father cooking both the food he grew up with and using a plastic bag of recipes from Better Homes and Gardens.

Mr. CLARK: He still had his peas and rice and his, you know, stewed chicken, and he cooked his food, but he wanted to be American. My tribute to my father was the pineapple upside down cake on our menu. And my father learned how to make pineapple upside down cake. He learned how to make lemon meringue pie. He kind of Americanized us, you know, through his kitchen.

KEYES: In the kitchen of her new suburban Washington, D.C., restaurant, General Store, this French-trained chef focuses on American food. She's turning out everything from macaroni and cheese to chili and working alongside her partner from seven in the morning to 11 at night.

She laughs that her family personifies a stereotype many Americans have of West Indians, as people with multiple jobs.

Ms. CLARK: It's really funny because a lot of my family does have two and three jobs. And I - you know, when I was first divorced, I had two jobs. I was working at - this is a joke, too, though. I was like look at me, I'm West Indian.

KEYES: But Clark says that work ethic comes from knowing it's going to take more to get what you want, and Clark uses every bit of her very background. She grew up in a Jewish enclave in Great Neck, Long Island, where her parents moved so their five children could go to schools that were college-oriented, then went on to Johns Hopkins. Neither place had many blacks, and Clark says she's only recently embraced her West Indian heritage and how it guides her food.

Ms. CLARK: I used to say black first, but now I can really say yes, I'm West Indian. And I don't know why that was something that I never said before.

KEYES: Part of it, Clark says, is that she had to come to terms with what she calls the blue-collar nature of being a chef in a culture where people are more respected for working with their minds than with their hands.

Ms. CLARK: I don't know. Maybe it's the whole, like, nine-jobs thing. Maybe it's the whole, like, you know, West Indians are basically workhorses and that's it. So, for me, it was sort of like a whole coming to terms with, you know, who I am and what I do and having it all sort of make sense to me.

KEYES: Clark says her heritage and the work ethic that comes with it has made it possible for her to do what she does, but it also leaves her with a sense of responsibility.

KEYES: When you're a first generation American, you kind of owe it to your parents to, you know, not - you know, take as many swings as you can, and take advantage of your at-bats. And I mean, I really owe it to my parents, I owe it to my grandmother, to just take the world by storm just as she did when she got here, and she had way less than I did.

KEYES: Clark's newest restaurant, General Store, is doing well. She has two thriving daughters and plans to open another eatery, capitalizing on her familiarity with Jewish food this time. But still, she jokes that her late grandmother might look down from above one day and say, what are you doing? You only have one house? This is ridiculous.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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