Interviewee: Clark Wolf Session #2
Interviewer: Judith Weinraub New York City
Date: July 7, 2009
Q: It is July 7, 2009. It’s Judith Weinraub. I’m here with Clark Wolf for his second interview.
It’s nice to see you. Good afternoon.
Wolf: Wonderful to see you here too. It’s also particularly nice to be sitting on what must have been Gus Schumacher’s family farm.
[Wolf is referring to the land beneath the 72nd St. building in NYC where the interview is taking place, and near the original Schumacher farm.]
Weinraub: [laughs] Definitely. I thought, since we’ve gotten you to New York and to Star Spangled Foods, that it occurred to me, when looking at the timing of everything, that you seem to have become a consultant pretty soon in that time frame, so I thought you could tell me how that happened, how you worked for Star Spangled Foods and how all of that developed.
Wolf: It actually is an interesting story, even if it weren’t mine, because this is how some things happen, and it also happened to be, as a number of other pieces of my particular personal and professional history, matched a certain cultural revolution. I had been one of those people that has kind of been floating along the cultural tide. I knew where I was and I did paddle a bit, but that’s really what happened.
When I came to New York, I was brought here by Barbara Kafka, but I came because of James Beard. He said, “It would be fun if you were here,” and he fed me once every week, once every other week for the first year or so that I lived here, on Saturday or Sunday. And let me tell you, a good thing too. Poor as a church mouse, awed and amazed by everything, having been taken by Barbara Kafka to the Grill Room at the Four Seasons and to see—I think I told you—Henry Kissinger and Arthur Schlesinger, which are fun to say together but not always easy to get together at luncheon table, and realizing that a baked potato was $12,000, but that New York was broad and rich and deep and complex.
Weinraub: Did you talk to James about that or did he talk to you about that at all?
Weinraub: The complexities of what you were—
Wolf: Oh, completely. I mean, basically he said, “It would be fun to have you here.” We did speak about people more than about food. We spoke about people. We spoke about things. I think he embodied more than he knew. He was a gay man who lived in Paris in the fifties. Excuse me; that’s interesting. Having twenty minutes with him was more interesting than most things in New York. Watching him be in New York and, unless he’d been away for a while, go unnoticed and unattended to, taught me all about how one of the important things in New York is that you come and go. If you’re an absolute total full-time local, New Yorkers ignore you as a public voice. I learned so much from his richness of life.
The other thing is that I knew a lot of food people, but they were so compartmentalized. San Francisco is a place where food is an obsession and a fetish in a lot of ways, or it’s a connector to your original cultural heritage. San Francisco is not a very integrated community. All Ligurians stick together. All the Hong Kongs stick together. You know, a lot of these things, which is why you taste it in a pure form, but it’s also why it can be insular. I couldn’t stand San Francisco because everybody that I was able to be anywhere near was white, and if they weren’t Waspy, they were Jews trying to be Waspy. You could know somebody thirty years and not know that both their parents were Jewish, because they really worked at it, you know. When I lived in San Francisco and somebody said, “What do you do?” they meant sexually and in terms of mind-altering assistance.
Wolf: Yes. And when they say, “Where are you from?” they meant it emotionally or psychically or spiritually. In New York, suddenly I was a first-generation American Romanian Jew, and it was wonderful, different, no more complete in its identification than anything else, but it was just such an extraordinary perspective.
So I would visit him, and what I found him to be is more complex and more complete as a human being. I spent time with a lot of other luminaries. I knew Julia Child and enjoyed her very much, but she wasn’t an intellectual by any means. She was socially successful, from a socially successful background, whatever that means, and nice and liberal, but James was truly interesting and truly brilliant and had a great range and a great depth of knowledge, understanding, interest, and it wasn’t superficial and it wasn’t competitive. It was truly the man. So I learned about faience, about Majolica. I learned about the theater. I learned about opera. I mean, this man was interested in a lot of different things, and he helped me have it be okay for me to be truly interested in that which truly interested me. Not a very good sentence, but you know what I mean.
Weinraub: Did he talk about his own sexuality at all in any way?
Wolf: Oh, of course. Oh, of course. I remember he once said to me, “I’m so glad that we’re not attracted to each other. It makes it so much easier to talk.” And I never really knew if that was exploratory or a statement, but I didn’t really care. I took it at face value and said, “Right.” And we talked a lot about—he was very attracted to somebody I was sleeping with, to John Carroll, and John Carroll is a very handsome man still, the bastard, and was gorgeous then, you know. I found John very good-looking and so deeply unappealing. I mean, I love him, but not in that either romantic or sexual, physical way. But it was interesting to go to parties with John to Bob Coacello’s apartment. I could go anywhere if I had John on my arm, because he was kind of halting in his speech, so other people could do all the talking, and in NY, powerful people like that. And he was very good-looking, so it made people feel more attractive. It was like he was good jewelry.
Weinraub: Tell me what he did.
Wolf: John actually was one of Jim’s West Coast assistants. He’s written a number of books. He lives in San Francisco, and he helped Marion Cunningham with a couple of the Fannie Farmer books. He’s a very dear man who also makes great pies, amazing muffins. He’s from Watsonsville; he’s a small-town guy. His name is John and he’s married to another man named John, and they live in San Francisco and he works three days a week as a customer service manager at Safeway. He’s a very dear guy.
Anyway, James loved to talk about everything and everyone, and we analyzed and dissected, and it was gossip, but gossip in a fairly constructive way. It was bitchy at times, but never mean-spirited, and it was really, in my sense, always out of a desire to learn and to know and to understand better. And that’s my nature as well, so I loved it.
I remember bringing a thirty-year-old Persian—I called him that; he was from Iran—Iranian guy who was an importer of caviar and who I was working with, and I’ll tell that story in a minute. We run into James, and we had tasted all this different stuff. I got to bring him to James freakin’ Beard, right?
The next day, James Beard calls me up and says, “Could you ask your young friend this and this and this?” Now, this is James Beard who, the day before, could remember the paint on the tile in a hotel in Tehran in the sixties, to the point where my friend was in tears. And the next day he called up to ask questions, because he was—
Weinraub: About the caviar?
Wolf: About the caviar. He wasn’t done learning. One of the reasons I like Jeremiah Tower, because when all is said and done, he was always very supportive of the realitythat we always continue to learn.
So, being around him helped me pick or settle on a comfort with my future. I always felt that I would begin the adult part of my professional and personal career in life in my fifties, which is what’s happened, because food was one of those things where you can’t possibly know enough before the age of fifty to be any use at all. You can show some talent and some ability, and you show early developed skill sets that you lose later in life, but to actually be of value in something that I find to be fundamentally critical, very important and powerful, you need some time. So I loved seeing that.
Weinraub: How much older was James than you?
Wolf: I moved here when I was twenty-nine and he was at the end of his seventies, the beginning of his eighties. He died in ’85 at eighty-three? Is that right? Something like that. And I came in ’82. Three, four, five, right? So he was in his eighties, but I knew him in his late seventies, I guess, in San Francisco. So it was at the end of his life.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to his house and I thought, “I’m going to James Beard’s house. I wonder what we’ll be nibbling on.” You know, thinking caviar, foie gras, an entire roasted suckling pig, just sitting around. And I said, “I’m starving. Is there anything?”
He said, “Sure. There’s some Skippy peanut butter in the fridge,” you know. “Calm down.”
Anyway, I move to New York, I work for Barbara. James fed me a little bit. I went some places, I did some things, so I had that wonderful first season of a young man from someplace else, in their late twenties, who is polite and good at conversation, and had a blue blazer and decent slacks, and I just accepted every invitation. I did all those things that I was told to do, and it was lovely. It was wonderful. Saw Mrs. Kennedy twice in the first two months. You know, like that.
Weinraub: How did you get those invitations?
Wolf: Through the good offices of nice people. All my friends were in their seventies or older. So James invited me to—well, historically it’s interesting. His assistant at the time was a woman called Emily Gilder. She was married to Harwood Gilder. They had lived in an apartment on Washington Square Park over those—and I quote—“damn liberals,” the Roosevelts. She gave parties. She was his assistant. She lived next door. She gave a party. I was sleeping on a couch and then on a floor, borrowing an apartment for five days, and a woman called Mary something, who lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania, had a pied-à-terre at Tudor City. All these things that are fun to say— pied-à-terre at Tudor City. So she gave it to me for a month. I mean, it was like that. “Here’s our young friend from California. Let’s help him.” So all these wonderful old birds, men and women, they were birds. They were wonderful old peacocks and doves. Emily always made her famous turkey tetrazzini. Such frightening food. So I was welcomed into a lot of different circles.
Weinraub: Meanwhile, continuing to work for Barbara or with Barbara?
Wolf: For Barbara, against Barbara, whatever. To cut to after I finished working with Barbara, I had made contact with a lot of people, because I was across the counter and everybody came in. Barbara was very well known and visible in those days. She was the food editor of Vogue. The Oakville Grocery was a big deal. I was a big deal, in a way, as a manifestation but also I was funny and charming and young and I had black curly hair and all that stuff, lots of energy. So people were really wonderful to me.
I behaved well in the demise of Barbara’s business, and I really did, for its own sake. I kept my counsel, because it wasn’t my story to tell. How you behave in tough situations is really powerful, and so I pushed and pushed and pushed. I did a spring cleaning sale, really convincing people that it was just to clean out the stock and redo for the summer season. Paid off all the bills of all the little food makers, leaving, of course, Milton Glaser and Barbara’s mother in the lurch, and closed the store.
I had been with Arthur Schwartz of the Daily News the day before, and I let Barbara tell it, because it was not my business. I didn’t want to be insidery gossip; I wanted to be a mensch. I wanted to be a grown-up. And that happened, and I did it because it was the right thing to do, not because I had calculated.
Weinraub: What did happen, in fact. It failed because—
Wolf: She never had enough money or enough product or anything, because she broke every rule in the book; because she was completely distracted; because she made it nearly impossible; because she barely had half of what she needed to make it work in terms of capital; because she was constantly chasing her own tail and making things worse; because she had a window that she wanted to sit in; because she had an American food store painted the colors of Giverny. If that doesn’t tell you everything. Because she was an oxymoron and it was her intention to be interesting and contrary, which is really great at a cocktail party and really bad for a business that’s based in the deepest set of cultural norms there are. Is. Are.
Weinraub: You mean eating.
Wolf: Food. Not eating; food. Much more powerful than just eating. Unless you’re absolutely brilliant, you can see permutations, you can discuss them, but you can’t do them and expect to survive. She was doing an art piece and I was doing a shop. So what I did was, I threw her out. She was capricious, and you can’t be when you deal with a business that is on pennies and nickels and dimes. She couldn’t get good storage, so she made the shelves eighteen inches deep so that she could store things right there. Well, you don’t do that. You don’t have eighteen-inch-deep shelves that always look empty, that are made out of wood, that are going to buckle.
Anyway, basically what I did was I threw her out of the store. I said, “If you don’t leave right now, give me $80,000 for the stock. If you don’t leave right now, I will leave and lock the door and tell everybody everything. Go away.” So I threw her out. I re-merchanized the store the way I knew it had to be.
Weinraub: You got the $80,000?
Wolf: I did. That was another conversation. We were walking up the street and we’re talking about all this stuff and what’s going on. She said, “How are things personally?”
I said, “I came across the country, all the way across the country to do a business that’s seminal, and none of what you’ve told me is true, and you don’t have any of the money or the resources, and you’re constantly being difficult. That’s personal. That’s all I’m going to talk to you about.” And so she gave me the money, and I said, “And we have to have it by such and such.”
Anyway, I re-merchandized the store the way people actually shop in a store in America, in a food shop, and of course sales jumped instantly.
Weinraub: What did that involve? What kind of things did you put in that weren’t there?
Wolf: That’s not the issue. I put all the jams together. I didn’t separate everything by state. It wasn’t a library; it was a shop.
Weinraub: I see. I see.
Wolf: I put all the things by category the way we do this. Actually, that was a precursor for my being a consultant, because what I discovered was I know what I know. And I had been through a cheese shop that went Chapter 11 that I helped make survive. I knew how a business worked. She didn’t. She knew how to get money from her mother. She knew how to ask her husband for a new piece of jewelry. She had no idea.
So what I realized is that food was compelling, it was becoming very popular, and I actually did understand how it worked, or I understood what I knew and I understood the basics of business. So for about a year I did tastings and seminars and got to do some articles. People were nice to me. They gave me assignments. I was very concerned about—I wrote a little bit for Pat Brown, for Cuisine, for Cooks Magazine, and I was very concerned—I didn’t want to be a writer or a journalist, even though I thought that way and I had some training. I wanted to have more possibilities and more options. I didn’t have a rich husband or wife or trust fund, and I didn’t find writing financially viable. And having come from San Francisco, where every third person in the Bay Area was a food writer, mostly because they were married to somebody with money or had their own, I didn’t pretend that I could afford to do that, and I realized that if I kept writing, I would be taking the rent, the food, the bread out of writers’ mouths, at the very least taking their opportunities, and that they would hate me and they would be right. So I was careful not to do that.
Scratching around to figure out what to do, I was doing little projects and this, that, and the other, and in 1985 I got a call from a man named Joe Santo, Dr. Joseph Santo. John Mariani, who was writing about American food all over the country, and he had been speaking, and Joe wanted to take what had been a failed Tyrolean restaurant on the Upper East Side, on East 60th Street around the corner from Bloomingdale’s, and he had said, “If it doesn’t work as a ski resort-type thing, it’ll work as a southwestern thing, because it’s all wood and stone,” and he’d always wanted to do a restaurant based on that wonderful magazine, Arizona Highways, that had been part of his fantasy life. Joe asked Mariani, “Do you know anybody who can help me? Because I have no idea what this means.”
And Mariani said, “Yeah, Clark Wolf. He knows what the food is and he knows where the stuff is and how to do it.”
So he hired me to do Arizona 206 for $10,000 total, and actually, I wrote the menu every single day for six months, by hand; it’s my handwriting. And actually the typeface that worked eventually was computerized, based on my handwriting. I did the logo with my cheese shop “for the price of cheddar” marking pen writing, but I did it with a double marking pen orange with yellow over and said, “Let’s color-Xerox this,” because in ’85, color Xerox was new. I said, “Let’s just take this to a graphic artist and have them do it.”
And he said, “Screw that. I paid you. We’ll use this.” So suddenly my handwriting from my cheese shop was on the awning of a New York restaurant and in a full-page ad in Interview magazine. It was extraordinary how common sense and fresh eyes can achieve great things or big things or visible things or a viable thing.
So what happened was—and I was terrified to do this. I was having some help from a young man who was working a little bit, my first assistant, a man called Charles Thompson. He had been one of the kids in my cheese department in the Oakville Grocery in San Francisco, and he’d also been Jeremiah Tower’s boyfriend. So, for example, when Jeremiah would come to town, Charles would have me pick the places. Jeremiah would bring a limousine, champagne, and the cocaine, and Clark would design the evening. We’d go all over New York City to look at the hottest, best blah, blah, blah. It was hilarious.
So I said, “He wants me to do this restaurant. I’m a food shopper. I know food and I know restaurants, but I’ve never—.”
And Charles said, “Jeremiah gets $50,000 a restaurant. He doesn’t know anything.”
Weinraub: You mean for setting up a restaurant.
Wolf: Yes. “He knows nothing. He doesn’t know how to run a business. He doesn’t know how to set up the phone.”
So I said, “Okay, I’ll try.”
Weinraub: Had you left Star Spangled Foods?
Wolf: Yes. This is ’85. So between ’82 and ’83 I did Star Spangled Foods. Between ’83 and ’84, ‘85ish, I was doing seminars and projects, going all over the country and giving talks for Foods & Wine of France, Foods of Spain, whatnot, because I was helping to teach American chefs and culinary teachers. I remember flying up to Rhode Island to Johnson & Wales in a little puddle jumper that I would not take now, to the point that I couldn’t hear when I got off. There were fifty chef teachers. This was their fourth weekly program of on their day off, come in for a seminar. The other three were lousy, and if this wasn’t good, they were never coming again. There would be open revolt. Well, we had a great time. I learned how to communicate with people who know what I know, who know what I don’t know, and who don’t know what I know. So it was a training ground.
I did a French cheese-tasting seminar for the Balducci family [upstairs next to the original store]. No, wait a second. At seven-thirty at night on Sunday. Can I just tell you, if it hadn’t been useful, they would have put me into the pâté there. The first thing I did was I set up a table that looked like it could have been one of their cases, so they were impressed by my actual retail ability. Then I asked them a question and they had the wrong answer, so I said, “Okay. Do you trust me? I know a little something and I’m here to help.” I gave them several ideas. They made money right away, like if you put farm eggs into a big glass jar of rice in which you also have truffles, you will be able to sell the eggs for a lot of money. They’d never heard of that. Remember, I had been spending two and a half years learning from the best chefs in the world. The Oakville Grocery, I mean, everyone from Elizabeth David to Alice Waters, to Roger Verge, I mean people from all over the world would come and tell us things. Diane Kennedy. These were brilliant, brilliant people.
Marcella Hazan. I’ll never forget, at the home of Lonnie Kuhn in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, Marcella was giving a class to a bunch of rich women, quite frankly, and two really confused men, but anyway, I walked in just as a visitor to the class, to observe, and she shoved them out of the way to show me and have me taste 100-year-old balsamic vinegar out of her hand, because I was symbolic. I was hungry. I was a sponge. I still kind of am. But I was this young, hungry collaborator, and that’s really what it was, it was collaboration. I wasn’t ever going to compete with them and they knew it.
Weinraub: But your confidence level must have been growing a little bit.
Wolf: You think? [laughs] Well, what happened was, when I was working at the Oakville Grocery, Joseph Phelps from Hensel Phelps Construction—we talked about this. I think I said that the last time I was with you, said to me, because his daughter was working for me, because that’s one of the costs of money, “You need to be a little bit easier with her. You’re sometimes intimidating to her. Sometimes you’re intimidating to me.”
Well, food knowledge is so powerful, that if you have a little bit of it, it’s huge, and I actually had a lot of it because I hadn’t grown up with a mother who was a good cook, but I did grow up with a very intelligent, creative mother, and there were fruit trees, you know, and my grandmother could cook and all those other things. So, yeah, I had a lot of confidence. Certain things you know, and when you’re selling something for $150 a pound, you need to at least speak with confidence, with authority, right? That’s my Mary Martin story.
Weinraub: I don’t know about that.
Wolf: Mary Martin walked into the Oakville Grocery and said, “Hi. Are you Clark?”
“My friend told me about you. I’m Mary Martin.”
I said, “I know, Miss Martin. Nice to meet you.” It’s Mary Martin!
She said, “My friend says that you have really good truffles.” So I took her over and I sold her about $95 worth of Perigord black truffles.
I get a phone call the next day. “Hello. Is this Clark?”
“This is Mary Martin. Do you remember me?”
“Yes, Miss Martin. Of course.” I said, “How are those truffles?”
She said, “Well, they were wonderful, but my friend had meant the $1.25 chocolate ones, but I did have the best roast turkey in my life.” Isn’t that wonderful?
Weinraub: [laughs] That’s a great story.
Wolf: Right? And sometime later, Larry Hagman walked in, drinking champagne in the store, and said—
Weinraub: “My mother sent me.” [laughs]
Wolf: “Walk me around, but be careful, my ma says you’re dangerous,” or something like that. It was amazing!
But anyway, so, yeah, it was extraordinary. You could meet anybody in the right context in a service position, right? But what I learned early on is that what I had that was useful and what I learned in NY was, if you would like to have some influence [unclear] a place, be useful, offer something. So I offered what I knew, and that’s what I did.