Claudia Fleming
Photo by Lindsay Morris

Claudia Fleming: “I am out here on a limb”

Short Profile

Name: Claudia Fleming
DOB: 11 April 1959
Place of birth: Brentwood, New York, United States
Occupation: Pastry chef

Ms. Fleming, what makes a dessert classic?

What makes something timeless, I think, is great ingredients, and the understanding that people want familiarity. Particularly in desserts! It's one of the most enjoyable aspects of eating, but you don't need it to survive. People choose to eat dessert — you don't really choose to eat dinner. If you're getting too out there with your ideas, people are like, “Yeah, no, I just wanted a piece of chocolate, or I just want some ice cream.” I'm personally not looking to blow minds with dessert because people on some level want to know what they're getting.

It’s different to cooking where innovation can really be the goal above all.

Sure, and it depends on your location, too. At North Fork Table & Inn, which I owned up until January of last year, it’s a seasonal place, and our menu was very tied to locality. We were very busy in the summertime, so that’s when you want something light — easy dining. People don't want to get all dressed up and sit there for three hours dissecting their every bite. That kind of innovative model certainly would not have worked here. I think unless you're Grant Achatz or Jose Andres, it's hard to make a living being that creative.

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery! People continue to adapt it, and that's what cooking is. It's just adaptations over time.”

Matt Abergel says that he isn’t trying to make food into art; he’s just trying to serve something delicious.

I mean, I found success being classic and timeless, so why not just keep going with what’s working for you? That was the model then. But another part of it is that when I was the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern, Instagram wasn't the phenomenon that it is now. So we in the industry learned and were influenced more by going out to dinner, rather than by looking at Instagram. So that's an enormous difference in terms of what drove our creativity. Instagram makes me feel very insecure! I stay away for the most part because I have no idea what I’m doing with it. I get very discouraged.

Before the days of Instagram, your famous caramel chocolate tart “went viral” despite virality not even existing as a concept at the time. It’s been called “the tart that launched a thousand tarts.”

(Laughs) It’s shocking, right? in those days, Gramercy Tavern was like ground zero for the new American restaurant. It was a fabulous place to work, the food was amazing, the hospitality was incredible, the wine list was unparalleled and interesting. The stars really aligned there for a lot of us! So many people came through that place, a lot of people ate the tart, and it resonated with them. I mean, it's just chocolate and caramel — it wasn't revolutionary at all, until I put salt on top of it. And that, of course, was not an original idea either. I had seen that in Paris. But I tried it myself, and it just went bananas.

Were you surprised by how much people loved it?

I was! When you’re creating something or riffing on something… You're kind of putting yourself out there, and when people respond positively, it's wonderful. I always felt really honored that people adopted it and loved it and adapted it and riffed on it. And that it's become part of baking history is crazy to me!

It didn’t bother you when people created their own copycat versions of your tart?

No, no, this kept it alive. Imitation is the highest form of flattery! People continue to adapt it, and that's what cooking is. It's just adaptations over time, and I'm fortunate enough to be a link in that chain. I mean, I'm just honored that people have loved eating it so much that they want to continue keeping it in our lexicon.

Apparently you are a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to your recipes. Are you still perfecting that tart recipe nearly 20 years later?

You know what, I feel like finally in the later years at the North Fork Table, I did get it right. I have no interest in tinkering with it anymore. The size has been scaled down to something so sleek and stealth. I feel like in its earlier renditions, it was too clunky. So now I feel like it's easier to eat, it's not overwhelmingly cloying. I feel like it's the perfect portion size!

“Now that I am out here on a limb, on my own, I'm having difficulty finding where I fit in! I'm struggling a little bit with what I want to say.”

Your cookbook The Last Course also went through a similar phenomenon — it sold out very quickly and then because it wasn’t reprinted at the time, became very coveted, selling on eBay for up to $250 a copy.

I had no idea the book was so coveted at the time! People would text me or email me regularly saying, you know, “Do you have any books now?” (Laughs) The funny thing is that it was first published in October 2001, the month after 9/11. And it just pretty much disappeared. People were not focused on cookbooks at that point. On my book tour, I got cancelled everywhere I went because somebody from the government was reporting on Bin Laden or anthrax or something… But then eventually it became incredibly well received, and it’s hard for me to even know why. I mean, listen, I didn't sit down and think, “Oh, we want to make something different from everything else.”

Even though the sweet-savory desserts in The Last Course were something pretty unique at that time.

Well, it wasn't so unusual on the savory side, right? You always had something sweet with duck, for example, and nobody thought twice about it. I always looked at savory cookbooks for inspiration, especially this Italian cookbook that I was looking at that had that classic Italian salad with blood oranges and fennel. So then I would just try to incorporate them into my desserts… Things like prosciutto sliced super thin, baked and served with cantaloupe ice cream. It’s just looking at things from a different angle. It’s really hard to find original ideas!

So how are you coming up with your new recipes or ideas these days?

That's a great question. To be quite honest with you, I'm really struggling. I wasn't going about my desserts previously as a way to be different, it was never my desire for the desserts to be showstoppers. It was a way to fit into the restaurant and be a part of that whole. That was an experience. And now that I am out here on a limb, on my own, just working on a new cookbook in the mindset of a home baker… I'm having difficulty finding where I fit in! I'm struggling a little bit with what I want to say. The good thing is that baking is just so comforting, and not just comforting for the person doing the baking! It’s about sharing. So these days, that’s how I’m occupying myself: recipe testing, sharing with my neighbors — and getting really fat! (Laughs)