On this week's Special Sauce, I continue my conversation with visionary pastry chef Claudia Fleming. But before we get to Claudia's captivating story, Kenji fields a question from Serious Eater Joan Moore, who wants to know how long the blade on her Cuisinart food processor should last.
After Kenji delivers his characteristically thoughtful answer, Claudia and I pick up where we left off last week, and talk about her harrowing and moving journey. We start off by examining why she and her late husband, the prodigiously talented chef Gerry Hayden, decided to pack up their knives and scrapers, leave New York City, and buy an inn on the North Fork of Long Island, despite the fact that at the time, Claudia was, as she says, "kind of the it-girl when we left. I was on top of the world."
Turns out, the move was made in part for Gerry. "I felt like I was eclipsing the larger talent in the relationship," Claudia says. "He devoted his entire life to being a chef, a cook. I loved him very much and wanted him to have his time. I hope that doesn't sound patronizing. I wanted him to live his dream and I wanted to help facilitate that."
The inn hardly turned out to be a panacea. "It was a little money pit and it was a bit like The Shining," Claudia remembers. "It was kind of crazy. The inn was literally falling down and falling apart... There were lots of hysterical things about that. But it was kind of creepy and scary, too." If there was a single lesson Claudia took away from the experience, aside from the necessity of being well capitalized, it was this: "Beware of your passion. It can kill you."
The battle to keep the dream of the inn alive took a tragic turn when Gerry was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Claudia became chief caregiver to Gerry, even as she was running the inn. And yet somehow they persevered. "I got my strength from him," Claudia says, explaining how she managed to keep everything running. "I'm like, 'How is he doing this?' It was incredible. I'm like, 'If he can do it, I can do it with him.'"
Claudia and I also spend some time talking about the reissuing (a rare occurrence in the cookbook world) of her profoundly influential book, The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. I ask Claudia what she set out to do with the book. "I was trying to make restaurant desserts more accessible by deconstructing them," she says. It was also a way for her to advance the idea of dessert as something more than just something sweet to end a meal. "I think maybe I was or am a frustrated cook," Claudia says, "so I started making dessert just like another course: the last course. It became less about sweet than about just another course that wraps up the dinner. It didn't come out of left field."
To close out the episode, Daniel Gritzer checks in from the Serious Eats test kitchen and schools us on grilling pork chops. "Grilling pork chops can present similar problems as chicken breasts. The meat is lean and prone to drying out, even with the slightest overcooking. With a few simple steps, though, you can guarantee that your pork chops will be juicy and perfect every time."
I urge all Serious Eaters to check this episode out, just because Claudia Fleming's story is so moving.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=452053