(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
In 2005, Claudia Fleming said goodbye to New York City, where she had gained international fame as the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern and author of The Last Course (Random House, 2001). She didn’t leave the culinary field, of course. Rather, she opted to open the North Fork Table & Inn in Long Island with her husband, the late chef Gerry Hayden. After his passing and 15 years away from the bright lights of the big city, she decided it was about time to stage a comeback. And despite a worldwide pandemic, that’s just what she’s done. With a new role at Union Square Hospitality Group and a new cookbook in development, Fleming is back and better than ever.
When Fleming decided to sell the North Fork in 2020, she wasn’t quite sure what her next step would be. Naturally, one of the first feelers she put out was to Danny Meyer, whom she not only successfully worked with for so long but whom she also considered a friend. “We weren’t quite sure what it would be,” she notes, “but both he and I wanted me back.” Little did she know the Covid-19 pandemic was looming and all conversations ground to a sudden halt the day she was supposed to meet the president of the company. “It wasn’t until Christmastime, I just texted Danny a merry Christmas and he said, ‘I hope you’re reaching out to start the conversation again.’”
The role she and Meyer landed on is Corporate Pastry Director, a somewhat fluid research and development position. “A lot of pastry chefs are very young and insanely busy. And so for them to have someone to talk to and to work out ideas and just help evolve and develop seems like something he wanted.” As projects arise, she inserts herself as a sort of mother hen to the existing teams. Most recently, she was more tasked to help develop the menu of Ci Siamo, Meyer’s new Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Along with Chef Hillary Sterling, she helped develop contemporary Italian desserts, something she isn’t particularly known for. “I’ve never worked in an intensely Italian environment so I’m learning a lot. It’s really fun.”
Of course, developing Italian desserts isn’t the only difference she’s found since coming back. The Me Too movement, the shrinking of pastry departments and a whole new crop of chefs and techniques have completely changed the restaurant scene since her departure. She finds the shift towards bakeries and away from fine dining particularly interesting. “I feel like there’s an insane amount of talent in the bakery realm. It seems like that’s where people are expressing themselves more than in a restaurant.”
But no matter how different the food world may be now, she still finds traces of her legacy all around her — some good, some not so much. One thing she’s particularly salty about? Salt! She’s often credited with the trend from her immensely popular chocolate caramel tart at Gramercy Tavern. But now she declares, “Enough with the salt! All things do not need to taste salty. I come up against that one all the time.”
A more positive sign of her long-lasting legacy was the cult status of her 2001 book The Last Course, which was reissued in 2019. After very strong sales, her editor decided a new book might be a good idea. Thankfully, the pandemic lockdown gave her ample time and opportunity to develop the concept and recipe test. But the new book, scheduled for release sometime in 2022, is quite a departure from her previous work. “It’s more about the stuff I wanted to eat and make during the pandemic and just appeal to me.” She is working on pizzelle, for instance, something she remembers from her childhood and Southern Italian roots. “It’s very simple. Getting older, more complicated things just don’t appeal to me anymore like three elements to a plated dessert.”
Recipe testing for the book helped solidify for her that regardless of the grueling hours, she much prefers her new job. “That’s when a light bulb went off in my head and said, ‘Oh, you’re a really good restaurant worker.’” And thankfully, the Meyer universe has kept her quite busy. With Ci Siamo now open and a chunk of her book complete, Fleming isn’t quite certain what her next projects will be. But she’s excited to keep moving forward and helping build a “more cohesive and collaborative environment for [the chefs] to share.” Based on her decades of success, there’s no doubt she’ll achieve just that.