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America’s First Black James Beard Award Winner Passed Away in 1998. 25 Years Later, His Family Still Makes His Recipes Every Christmas

The story of Patrick Clark’s holiday menu is a reminder of why the holiday season, and who you spend it with, matters.

<p>Tatjana Junker</p>

Tatjana Junker

It’s Christmas morning in 1994. Lynette Clark is putting the finishing touches on the family’s home in Plainsboro, New Jersey, stringing up colorful dried hibiscus flowers before moving to the kitchen to set up the mise en place for her husband to start cooking. The Clark children are clamoring to open their presents, which are sitting under the decorated Christmas tree. Nearby is a kinara holding the seven candles of Kwanzaa.

The scene feels like an ordinary holiday morning in a typical family home, except the cooking is being done by one of the most celebrated and decorated chefs in America at the time, chef Patrick Clark. At 6:30 a.m., Clark, then the executive chef at Tavern on the Green in New York City, heads into his home kitchen to cook a multicourse meal that includes Jerusalem-artichoke soup, a silky scallop chowder, roast turkey, sides of braised greens with rutabagas, sweet potato and mushroom hash, and multiple desserts. But unlike the thousands of covers he and his team serve at Tavern on the Green each week, this meal will serve a mere dozen guests: him and his wife, their five children, and a handful of aunts, grandparents, and cousins who have gathered to celebrate the holiday and eat together. Food & Wine would be there, too; writer Ellen Stern captured the feast for a story that ran in the magazine one year later, in 1995.

<p>Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely</p>

Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

“I’m allowed to add one extra dish every year, and this year it’s standing rib roast of pork,” Clark says in Stern’s article. Indeed, the peppery cider-glazed pork roast is the star of the show, served with a gravy made of the pork drippings and a dried fig and apple chutney with port wine (what Stern calls “Clark’s version of applesauce”). The precision of Clark’s classical French training is on display: He takes the extra step to prepare two small succulent turkeys instead of one larger one; the bones on his centerpiece standing pork roast are scraped clean. Despite it being one of his few days off from the restaurant, Clark still wants to present his best work. There’s no possibility of food critics or angry diners, yet the stakes feel higher when preparing holiday meals for family, even for the renowned chef.

Pulling triple duty as sous chef, front of house, and mom, Lynette’s attention to detail is key to pulling the day together. She ensures the kids read their Bible scriptures and puts finishing touches on holiday decorations. After the food hits the table, the photographer captures the warmth of the special meal: The Clarks are dressed to the nines, eating luxurious food off fine china with scalloped edges, comfortable and full of joy in one another’s presence. The meal may seem extravagant and laborious, but that’s the point — what better season is there to pull out all the stops, to take extra time in preparing a meal, than when the people you love are going to be the ones eating it?

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Patrick Clark would pass away from heart failure at the age of 42, less than three years after this story was published. At the time, Clark’s friends and peers put together a cookbook to raise money for his family. It included reflections and recipes from Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters, and Daniel Boulud. Twenty-nine years later, Clark’s legacy lives on, as does the spirit of Christmases at the Clark house. Preston Clark, who was 14 years old at the time of the Food & Wine story, today is a lauded chef in his own right, heading up the kitchen at Lure Fishbar in New York City.

“I do most of the cooking now,” Preston says. His sister Brooke makes their father’s cheesecake; it was on the menu in 1994 and it is still a staple on their holiday table. All of Patrick and Lynette’s children are grown up, and the number of guests has expanded to 22 as children, spouses, and friends have become part of the family. But there are still games played and a delicious meal served — and Lynette remains at the heart of it all, Preston says: “The Clark family dinners are pretty awesome.”

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