Like so many people forging their own inspiring creative paths today, Claire Ptak is navigating uniquely varied terrain: an in-demand food stylist; a relentless food columnist for the Guardian; a guiding force for young women with big ideas. First and foremost though she is undoubtedly a baker, and over the course of our conversation, Claire goes to great lengths to articulate just what it is she finds so special about the craft.
The most illuminating moment comes unexpectedly, about mid-way through a chat about her worldly travels. For a few seconds, everything just drops away and the particular allure of baking suddenly becomes crystal clear. Claire disappears into the memory of a coconut cake she once ate on a near-deserted island near Honduras many years ago. “This island had nothing but sand and shacks and coconut trees basically, which meant that everything was made from the coconut tree,” she says dreamily, drifting in and out of the memory as other senses take over. “Their homes were made from the wood and their roofs were made from the leaves… Dried coconut shells provided the fuel for their fires… And I found this little old woman who was making these coconut buns that were just… Well, I ate them every morning, every morning you’d find me outside just waiting for her…!”
Somehow the combination of evocative imagery and luxurious pauses comes close to capturing the joy of biting into unexpectedly exciting and perfectly realised food. It jolts you from everything you thought you knew about the things you consume. You might try to proclaim its greatness with words but ultimately you get lost in the silent enjoyment of simply eating. Just as the island coconut cake had that effect on Claire (“it’s amazing, even in these places that supposedly don’t have a culture of baking, you can find something”), it’s safe to say that the cakes she conjures in her East London bakery have a similar effect on her ever-growing and reverent audience. This writer can vouch for that personally: as an evangelically ‘savoury-not-sweet’ person, the salted caramel and chocolate sponge cake that appeared from Violet one unexpected birthday has become an annual treat ever since.
Make no mistake, Claire’s goods are indulgences: her signature buttercream icings cloak her cakes entirely and burst from her biscuits and pies as you bite into them. There is something that is also oddly wholesome about them. Living in Britain, 2016 – the most self-absorbed and bizarrely baking-obsessed of places - it’s easy to attribute that to memories (real or imagined) of Old Fashioned Afternoon Tea Culture Back In The Good Old Days. Yet that doesn’t quite hold true with Claire’s creations. In the realest terms, it is her focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients - particularly the fruits at the centre of her work - that brings a certain authenticity to the fore of the palette.
Everything is sourced meticulously, from the polenta flour direct from Italy to fresh produce from the same Herefordshire farm that her friend (and former Semaine tastemaker) Skye Gyngell uses exclusively for her Spring restaurant. “You won’t get something with strawberries in the middle of winter,” Claire says matter of factly. This comes not from some whimsical, tent-based television contrivance but more so from Claire’s own upbringing amongst a ranching community in Inverness, California (an hour or so from San Francisco). “I was baking from such a young age!” Claire says. “It was pretty rural, so we’d be foraging for berries, and making pies, that kind of thing.” There’s a pause before Claire adds, “I just loved it. I even had my first cookbook from a pretty young age as well!”
In the past few years, Claire has published no less than four of her own cookbooks, all of which bear the unmistakable flavour of Violet Cakes. It’s almost too easy to say that there is a certain filmic quality to the books, because it was in the world of filmmaking that Claire initially harboured ambitions. Yet there does seem to be some truth in that, as she talks about how important it is to offer more than mere instructive, unembellished recipes. Like all the best movies, her books don’t just move the plot along to the inevitable conclusion: they summon an entirely immersive world around the narrative act of baking. They feel intimate and expansive and the perfect place to find a cake to follow raw oysters all at once.
After a refreshing period spent travelling the world, filmmaking morphed into baking by way of a role at Chez Panisse, the cult Berkeley eatery founded by seasonal ingredient pioneer and Ptak’s mentor, Alice Waters. “I’d worked in kitchens before and it certainly wasn’t a glamorous thing back in 2002 - it was very ‘male’ as well. But when I walked in to Chez Panisse I was so blown away by the artistry and everyone just looked so happy and content.” says Claire. “Nobody was talking, and I realised that it was because everybody was just so happy in their concentration. It was like an amazing ballet, the way they were moving around the room. I was like: oh my God, this is what I want to do!”
After three inspiring years, Claire and her English boyfriend-now-husband moved back to his homeland, where she took “the most natural” plunge in the world and started her own business, Violet Cakes. It started life as a modest market stall on Broadway Market, which grew from an almost-empty handful of stalls (“real tumbleweed.. just fifty pounds in taking some Saturdays”) to the bustling ground zero of East London regeneration it has become today. Now, Violet thrives in its own perfectly pitched location a stones throw from that original market stall on the other side of London Fields. When she’s not concocting new delights for the counter (“I used to bake in silence but now I get through a lot of Radio 4!”), she is working frantically on never-ending recipes for her Guardian food column.
Claire has also found herself increasingly at the forefront of a new generation of female entrepreneurs determined to support each other as they attempt to bring their ambitions to fruition. She regularly appears on panels, speaks to teenage girls at seminars and has her own podcast in which she interviews a different female entrepreneur each month. It started when she herself was interviewed on the subject for an ASOS podcast, but she acknowledges that the seeds were surely sown when she began working with Waters, a true icon whose own path cut right across the male-dominated restaurant industry. “You know, I meet all these young women - teenagers even - who have the most amazing ideas, the most amazing websites,” says Claire. “But they have no idea how to monetise it - they don’t even know what ‘monetise’ means! To be able to potentially help with that…” And here, Claire momentarily drifts off again because, just like with the coconut cakes on that island, she’s reached a point where the actual thought of something becomes so much more expressive - delicious even - than actual words ever can be.
By James Darton for Semaine.