Food director for Pret a Manger USA
Born April 11, 1959, in Brentwood, NY; married Gerry Hayden (a chef). Education: Studied at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now known as the Institute of Culinary Education).
Office— c/o Pret a Manger USA, 145 W. 30th St., New York, NY 10001.
Began career in food service industry as a server at Jams in New York City in the early 1980s; took server's job at New York's Union Square Café while she studied at New York Cooking School, moving up to entry–level kitchen position after graduation; polished pastry cooking skills in Paris; returned to New York to work in dessert preparation at several New York restaurants, including Montrachet, the Tribeca Grill, and Luxe; executive pastry chef, Gramercy Tavern, New York, 1994–2002; food director, Pret a Manger USA, New York, 2002—.
James Beard Foundation, Outstanding Pastry Chef Award, 2000; named to Ten Best Pastry Chefs in America, Pastry Art & Design, 2000.
At first glance, award–winning pastry chef Claudia Fleming seemed a curious choice as food director for Pret a Manger USA, the American subsidiary of the rapidly growing British chain of "quick casual" food boutiques. The transition from whipping up elaborate pastries at New York's Gramercy Tavern to supervising Pret a Manger's menu of prewrapped sandwiches struck many in the restaurant business as a very dramatic change of pace indeed. Fleming does not see it as much of a leap at all. As she told Bret Begun of Newsweek, "At Gramercy, we changed the way people thought about dining. I feel strongly about the ability of Pret to change the way people think about eating quick meals."
Fleming also believes passionately that so–called fast food need not be unhealthy food. It was Pret a Manger's dedication to quality that first attracted her, Fleming told Paul Frumkin of Nation's Restaurant News . "It's a great company. The philosophy is very much the same as it was at Gramercy. It's fresh, natural, trying to be as seasonal as possible. It's all hormone–free, antibiotic–free. It really speaks to me." Also appealing to Fleming is the sandwich, centerpiece of the Pret a Manger menu. As she told Frumkin, "People say to me, 'What a weird transition—pastry to sandwiches.' But the sandwich thing has always been something I've wanted to do. It's the perfect meal if it's made well."
Born in Brentwood on New York's Long Island on April 11, 1959, Fleming grew up wanting to be a professional dancer and began taking dance lessons while little more than a toddler. Her ascendancy to the highest ranks of the American culinary industry did not even begin until, at age 25, she gave up on her dreams of a career in dance. Because of the central role dance played in her life as a girl, food and eating took a relatively low profile. "I never cooked with my grandmother or with my mom," Fleming told Frumkin. "I was dancing as far back as I can remember, and you're almost trained not to eat when you're practicing ballet. I think I was on a diet from the time I was five years old."
With high school and years of ballet lessons behind her, Fleming headed off to Hartford, Connecticut, to study at the dance school associated with the Hartford Ballet Company (now known as Dance Connecticut). Moving to New York City at the age of 21, Fleming joined a small modern dance troupe but found it necessary to take jobs in the food service industry to support herself. In the first half of the 1980s, she worked as a server in two popular New York eateries—Jams and Union Square Café. When she turned 25 in April of 1984 and still had not made it into a major dance company, Fleming decided it was time to hang up her ballet slippers.
Captivated by the mysteries of the food preparation side of the restaurant business, Fleming decided to make the transition from dining room to kitchen. To do so, she enrolled in classes at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (which has since been renamed the Institute of Culinary Education) while still working as a server at the Union Square Café. After completing her studies, Michael Romano, the restaurant's executive chef, rewarded Fleming with an entry–level job in the kitchen. After further broadening her cooking skills with a summer in the kitchen at Gordon's Restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, she returned to New York to accept a job as assistant pastry chef at Union Square.
In an interview with Amy Zuber of Nation's Restaurant News, Fleming elaborated further on her decision to specialize in pastry. "I loved that it was a world within the restaurant industry. It is pretty independent, and there is a lot of autonomy in pastry. I also love dessert. I remember eating Pepperidge Farm cookies and Haagen–Dazs ice cream for dinner when I first moved to New York and couldn't afford much else. Being a pastry chef offers great immediate gratification, and I was good at it. It came naturally to me, and it suited my personality."
Fleming moved from the Union Square Café to an assistant pastry chef position at the trendy Tribeca Grill in New York. It was while working there that she met her future husband, Gerry Hayden, who is today the executive chef at New York's Aureole Restaurant. To learn even more about the art of pastry making, Fleming next flew off to Paris, France, where she worked for a time at Paris's up-scale Fauchon restaurant and in a Biarritz pastry shop. While in France, she was also introduced to a new concept in sandwich making at the original Cosi in Paris. Recalling her stint at Cosi, Fleming told Frumkin, "I worked there for several months. It was bread baked on premises in a wood–fired oven and really fresh ingredients, like grilled sardines and onions and greens. I loved it. At one point I even thought about staying and managing a second store."
Instead, homesick for New York, Fleming returned to the Big Apple where she landed a job as an assistant pastry chef at Luxe. When the restaurant closed, she was persuaded by a friend to interview with partners Danny Meyer and chef Tom Colicchio who were looking for a pastry chef to work at their soon–to–open Gramercy Tavern. Impressed by Fleming's ideas, as she was by their plans for the new restaurant, Meyer and Colicchio gave her the job. Both the restaurant and the pastries and other desserts conceived by Fleming were a solid hit with New York diners. For some eight years food critics lavished praise on the elaborate confections whipped up by Fleming, but then in 2002 along came Pret a Manger with an offer she simply could not refuse. Although she remained enthusiastic about her work with pastries, Fleming acknowledged to Newsweek 's Begun that some of her passion for the work had faded. She recalled that when she began at the Gramercy in 1994, "every waking moment was spent thinking about desserts. That stopped. I miss being obsessed."
For the moment, at least, Fleming seems to be very much obsessed with her new responsibilities, which include managing the sandwich menu at Pret a Manger and looking for new and exciting additions to the chain's line. Asked by Rob Patronite of New York magazine what makes a good sandwich, Fleming replied: "Balance of flavor and texture, stripping it down to its essentials. I love stripping things down; it's what I do best. They're the same principles that apply to creating a dessert: I'm looking for contrast—you want something soft in there, but you also want something crispy—and a lot of it has to do with the bread."
(With Melissa Clark) The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, Random House, 2001.
Nation's Restaurant News, December 2, 2002; January 27, 2003.
Newsweek, November 4, 2002, p. 52.
Publishers Weekly, July 2, 2001.
Time, November 13, 2000, p. 98.
Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2003.
"Claudia Fleming, Pastry Chef," StarChefs, http://www.starchefs.com/women/bio_fleming.html (July 1, 2003).
"The Fast (Food) Lane," New York, http://www.newyorkmetro.com/urban/articles/02/fallpreview/restaurants/fleming.htm (July 1, 2003).
— Don Amerman