Claire Ptak, Violet, London

posted on: Sunday, 4 August 2013

The fabulous Claire in Violet's open kitchen

Amazing sweet treats

The rustic courtyard at Violet

Almond polenta muffin and carrot cake 

Last week I got a little bit lost and came to a fork in a road. I could see the cafe I had planned to go to on my right, but out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of another place to the left. The outside looked charming and the name was Violet. Before my brain could debate it, my body had turned and I started walking left.

Like Robert Frost's poem, I too was pretty happy I'd taken the road less travelled because when I walked in to this Violet place one of the first things I saw was a signed Chez Panisse menu and Michael Pollan quote on the wall. Who is the intelligent person who owns this place? I need to chat to them!

That clever owner is Claire Ptak. Hailing from California, she trained as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, and when she first moved to London she started cooking from her home and turning up to Broadway Market, back when it was just starting out, hoping people would buy her cakes.

Now along with owning Violet on Wilton Way, she is also a food stylist for Ottolenghi in the Guardian and has just signed a book deal for her third cookbook. Violet cakes are wonderful, but I'm also so interested in the thought behind how she operates. Below is an excerpt from our chat. It was such a pleasure Claire!

PG: I love your shoes. (Hers: tan suede roman sandals.)
CP: Thanks, I was just admiring yours. (Mine: hot pink Marc Jacobs sandals.)
PG: (Internally: loving this interview already.)

PG: How did you come to be a pastry chef at Chez Panisse? Did you always set out to do so?

CP: Actually, my mom reminded me that I used to play a game called 'Chez Panisse' as a child where my friends and I would use leaves to make dinners in our own pretend restaurant! I had summer jobs in bakeries, but I actually didn’t think cooking was a viable career, so I went to college and studied film. But that didn't quite fit. My friends were the ones who pushed me to follow baking seriously. I grew up eating seasonally and organic and I thought if I'm going to do this, I may as well go for the best, so I did a one day internship trial at Chez Panisse and just fell in love with the place. I loved the open kitchen and all the people were so cool: they cooked but they all had other interests and I wanted to be like that. 

PG: What was it like working there?

CP: There’s a great sense of being a team at Chez Panisse, but Alice (Waters) also promotes individuality. You have the space to create your own dishes. Alice will look at and taste everything and she’ll make suggestions for tweaks like maybe cut the fruit in a different way or change the presentation. She can see instantly how to tweak or improve something, but the dish is yours and there’s great autonomy. Because of this you constantly want to outdo yourself, but not in a competitive way.

PG: Have you incorporated any practices into your own business?

CP: My staff all taste everything and look for ways to improve.  Staff sit down for lunch from our kitchen and this is important to taste and understand the quality. So we stop and have time to do that and then we can understand how to improve all the time. I've seen in some kitchens staff rush out at lunch and eat a sandwich in plastic and never try the food that they are making and serving. That makes no sense to me. I also like to have a culture of creativity and many of my staff stay for years. A couple of our staff are going over to do a stage at Chez Panisse next week!

PG: What brought you to London? 

CP: My husband is from London and we were planning to move from the States to London when I got offered the job at Chez Panisse I was almost going to turn it down and they were like – are you sure?! I decided to take the opportunity in the end and we did the long distance thing for three years until I decided to move to London.

PG: What differences have you observed between Californians and the Brits?

CP: In 2005 I was cooking from home and taking my cakes down to Broadway Market on a Saturday and it would often rain and the cakes wouldn’t look so perfect anymore. But the British still like that! It really gave me confidence in my cooking, that it could be essentially homemade and not perfect and people would still really like it. I love that the British seem to enjoy something with a patina. The store has peeling paint on the outside, but people seem to like that.

PG: I saw the Michael Pollan quote from Food Rules on your shop wall. In that book he says eat as much treat food as you like – as long as you make it yourself. Does that mean I don’t need to feel guilty about eating Violet Cakes? 

CP: Hahaha. Yes don’t eat any treats unless I've made them! Michael Pollan is a friend and he’s so cool and accomplished. We did some work together for Chez Panisse. 

PG: What is your own food philosophy?

CP: I like to have natural, seasonal and organic produce when I can. It’s expensive which in turn means our prices are higher too. Some people comment that our cakes are on the expensive side but it’s a chain of events. I want to know that the farmers are taken care of and that we are getting quality. That's a choice I've made. I rarely use food colouring in the cakes. Except for the red velvet cake which is my grandma’s recipe and I don’t want to mess with that! I also put less sugar in our cakes because I’m not a fan of a super sweet taste. I think everything in moderation is okay especially if you make it yourself and know what you have put in it.

PG: I’m a huge fan of food writer Ruth Reichl. That’s how as an Australian I really came to know and be introduced to the ideas of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Do you have favourite food writers or cooks that you look to for inspiration?

CP: I love Ruth (Reichl)! She is so cool. I’ve read all of her books and she is an amazing person. I love David Tanis' cookbooks. He is one of my idols as a cook. He was my chef at Chez Panisse and he writes exactly how he talks! Patience Gray who wrote Honey from a Weed, Elizabeth David, Richard Olney: I’m in awe of. I do the food styling for Ottolenghi’s column in the Guardian Magazine and I really admire him too.

PG: What is your favourite cake at Violet currently?

CP:  I think I’ve gone full circle because I started out eight years ago making cupcakes. And then there was a cupcake backlash! I don’t think there’s been enough time for them to make a cool comeback yet, but lately in the afternoon I’ve been saying, mmm yeah I really feel like a cupcake. They are great for summer when the frosting is soft!

PG: What’s next for Violet? Will we ever see a store in Australia?

CP: I’m definitely not someone to have a five year plan: I don’t know what’s next for the next five minutes! I'm not into making things too big. Actually, what is exciting is that I’ve signed a deal for a new Violet cookbook.

PG: Have you been to Australia?

CP: No but I really want to go. A friend of mine who used to work at Chez Panisse is an Australian food and travel writer (David Prior). We were both panelists at the Ballymaloe Food Literary Festival earlier in the year and he said I should really visit! 

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