“Good simple things are elevated naturally because they require a lot of sentiment.”
Sentiment is exactly what British chefs Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer embody and bring to their French-Italian restaurant, King, which they opened three years ago in the Soho neighborhood of New York. The pair met at the entry-level station at the River Café in London under the direction Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, “trailblazers” of the industry and Italian style cuisine. “We had to band together because there were a lot of other chefs in there who knew what they were doing at the very least,” de Boer said laughing. Their connection then blossomed through a “shared passion for the same flavors, similar food, and generally shared sense of greed,” de Boer continued, laughing with Shadbolt who interrupted, “and humor.”
In addition to their shared traits, the two also share similar memories of childhood summers in Provence, Shadbolt vacationing on the coast with family while de Boer’s holidays were spent in more inland, among the mountains. “Between the two of us we span Provence,” reminisced de Boer. This nostalgia is at the core of King, a sentiment they evoke especially in their summer dishes. In winter they lean more toward Tuscany rather than Provence since, as Shadbolt said laughing, “we can’t find any wild boar.”
Their conviviality is tangible as they sit together at the patio table, discussing grocery habits, new simple European restaurants, and different dishes they’ve tried. The pair especially brighten up when talking about the people who inspire them. “Many, many women, basically only,” exclaimed de Boer, and Shadbolt chipped in, “Most of them are.” Both draw inspiration from female food writers. “I think when we were growing up we had a lot of cookbooks from great, from brilliant food writers,” Shadbolt explained.
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These chefs also had inspiration at home with women who de Boer describes as “wartime women’ who had “such a holistic perspective, every dripping from the bacon pan would be saved and worked into a crust or a pie.” It was a rhythm of life that, as a child, de Boer “slipped into” alongside her mother and grandmother, while for Shadbolt and her mother, “Not one week passed where we hadn’t made something.”
This poetic simplicity introduced to them by the women in their life means a lot to both chefs. For their process, “we go into each dish and every menu that we write with a real kind of understanding and respect for the ingredient,” Shadbolt explained. “In an ideal world, if we’re choosing the right ingredients, we don’t really feel that we have to do too much to them, instead just enhance them in some way,” Shadbolt explained.
The pair says their work starts long before they begin cooking. Their menu changes daily so they can have an “attention to detail and to nature,” said de Boer. They consider the weather that day to the qualities of the individual tomatoes delivered, “whether the tomatoes are really sort of underripe and the sugars need to be cooked out of them or during a slow roast or whether they’re bustlingly juicy and they should go straight into a pancetta,” outlined de Boer. There’s an inspired generosity and dexterity these chefs foster at King that one might expect from their nona or grand-maman’s country home.
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The care and attention to the sentiment behind the food is elegantly distributed throughout the restaurant in the fine, cream and wicker décor, set with a large copper-colored vase of fresh flowers on the bar, something that seems straight from Provence. The restaurant is “reminiscent of summer holiday” de Boer said, classed up a notch under her mother’s direction.
The décor and food go together with their simplicity and quality. Shadbolt explained they “really kind of really think about each day as we write the menu and we really see the table as an opportunity for conversation.” And, in today’s world, a lapse into no distractions and the ability to focus on what de Boer calls “the right things” may be the most generous gift of all.
Shadbolt and de Boer’s generosity doesn’t end to the experience they create for their diners. They also participated in Altro Paradiso’s annual spring bake sale benefitting Planned Parenthood, organized by their friend, Natasha Pickowicz. “It’s obviously imperative to support [Planned Parenthood] given the current situation as well, so we definitely wanted to stand next to her and try and make a difference,” explained Shadbolt.
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As two women in the industry, they see room for improvement in paid maternity leave and childcare. “You see a lot of young female cooks and then you don’t see a lot of senior female cooks unless they don’t have families,” de Boer said. “It’s very rare to see senior women chefs who have decided to have families rise to the top of their game because you earn so little money in this industry and it is so expensive to get childcare,” continued de Boer, who is about to start her own family. She considers herself “very lucky to open our own business so we can call the shots before getting into that situation.”
Logistically, they both admit it is tricky given the hours, presence, and physicality required by chefs. “There is not daycare that’s night care that finishes at ten or eleven o’clock at night when someone in a kitchen would finish,” de Boer remarked. “I think you will continue to see a lack of women in these positions in kitchens unless the industry figures out a way to support their mothers, which is very difficult.”
And, perhaps, King is the perfect setting to have these conversations of care and support — with olive oil dripping down everyone’s chin. For these two chefs, they’ve created an elegant yet homey niche on the corner King St. spawned from what Shadbolt called their “want to feed.” “If you’re a cook you’re a generous soul,” Shadbolt explained. And when applied to moving the industry forward, she noted “It’s no surprise that everyone is very supportive.”
King — 18 King St, New York, NY 10014. website here