Celebrating the Superlative Claudia Fleming’s ‘Last Course’

Chef Claudia Fleming
Chef Claudia Fleming, Photo: Eric Striffler

Obsession is the wellspring of genius and madness, noted Michel de Montaigne. So, perhaps, is a root vegetable.

“I am obsessed with parsnips.”

Surely Claudia Fleming has encountered the parsnip before. Yet she makes this statement with such a sense of wonder, flecked with hints of excitement and even promise, that it makes one ponder just what about the humble parsnip never struck her in quite this delightfully maddeningly way before. It turns out that a parsnip cream she recently tasted has done the trick, and started her on a path that will no doubt end upon a plate that lucky diners will be savoring and sighing over at the end of some spectacular meal. It is a road that countless vegetables, fruits, spices and the like have traveled, to endless delight.

"The Last Course" by Claudia Fleming
“The Last Course” by Claudia Fleming, Photo: ©Penguin Random House

Fleming has been called—accurately, in all cases—a desserts deity, the doyenne of North Fork dining, a pioneer. The reissue of her classic cookbook, The Last Course, and the fanfare-laden reception two decades after it first came out, chisels the terms “inspiration” and “legend” onto that list as well.

The Last Course was written to give home cooks a guide to undertaking their own versions of some 175 of Fleming’s famous creations. You know, the ones that drew raves at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern for a decade and earned her a James Beard Foundation Award and then a whole new wave of accolades when she and husband Chef Gerry Hayden opened the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold in 2006. Heady stuff, indeed. But she does not, by any account, want that to get in the way of your joy in the kitchen. If you are flailing a bit and fearful that you will never be able to re-create the dishes exactly like Fleming, stop for a moment. Take a breath. Now listen to Fleming’s own words on the matter:

“The most important thing to remember is that cooking, and I think especially dessert-making, is incredibly fun.”

Fun. That’s the whole point. And flavor. Not to mention putting your own spin on things, taking risks, putting fear behind you and diving in.

“I would say start with the simpler ones, start with the cookies, start with things that aren’t or don’t appear intimidating,” Fleming offers, her nurturing nature as evident here as in any kitchen she’s overseen. “They give you confidence to go on to the ones that maybe are a little more time-consuming. Time is often seen as synonymous with difficulty, and they’re not necessarily the same thing, so a time commitment is oftentimes what we don’t have. So if you just begin with the simpler things, that’s a very good way to start.”

Beginnings. How often they do not foretell where things will go. Along with the recipes and wine-pairing tips (yes, great wine pairs with desserts as well as any other dish), The Last Course is an engaging telling of Fleming’s own origin stories. Of beginning this illustrious culinary career not in the kitchen but waiting tables, including at NYC’s Union Square Café in the 1980s. Of discovering a love for pastries and going off to further hone her craft in Europe. Of returning home and taking the role of pastry chef alongside Chef Tom Colicchio at the genesis of Gramercy Tavern, where under her guidance dessert became not just a sweet afterthought but a star attraction. Of moving to the East End and redefining the culinary culture of a region and curating a legacy.

Fleming’s desserts have never been the towering nine-tier, liquid-smoke-emitting, let’s-create-a-Vegas-show-around-this affair. The very idea that somebody might look at one of her dishes and say they didn’t know whether to photograph it or eat it is, simply, odd to her. They are accessible and delicious, yet crafted and exacting, a balance of flavors and textures and temperatures that play in perfect harmony, of refined technique and individual artistry that reveal the dancer within. There is no pretension. Their sophistication comes from their foundation, from Fleming’s foundation, in simplicity.

“You start with a simpler element, which is undoubtedly how I evolved,” she says. “I would perfect one element and then say, okay, I feel like maybe I could enhance this with another element, so let me start working on that and then put it together with the original element.”

One of Claudia Fleming's chocolatey desserts in "The Last Course"
One of Claudia Fleming’s chocolatey desserts in “The Last Course,” Photo: ©Penguin Random House

Waffles with Maple-Glazed Bananas and Maple Flan. Chocolate Soufflé with Extra-Bittersweet Chocolate Sorbet, Milk Chocolate Malted Ice Cream and a Chocolate Malted. Fleming’s menus through the years, and her chapter on Signature Composed Desserts, are filled with such inspired and sometimes seemingly unlikely yet perfect pairings. Much of her creative spark has come from using local, seasonal ingredients and taking them in unique directions, a practice she and Gerry, who passed away in 2015, made intrinsic to the North Fork Table & Inn’s offerings. To this day, an apple, a squash, basil, berries, it’s all paint for the canvas.

“When one does this for a living, so much time is spent thinking about it and doing it, and it’s such a totally different animal than it is for the home cook. So this book gets broken down into elements that are each in and of themselves a dessert. For instance, there’s a roasted pear recipe. I do roasted pears at the restaurant, but it’s paired with a napoleon and a sorbet. One of those things is in and of itself a dessert. They are complete on their own. You don’t need to make all three, but to make it more interesting to me, and as a result, to the diner, you start embellishing, which isn’t necessarily required of a home cook.”

Not required, but it sure sounds like fun, something to which anyone can aspire, a fresh perspective on the potential of a final course. Replacing the notion of should be with the promise of can be, Fleming’s unique dessert ideation changed the gastronomical genre.

“I approach desserts much in the same way that cooks approach cooking. I think I was always a frustrated cook, and I always collect ingredients on a plate much in the same way that cooks do. I’m less about making cakes and doing classic pastries. I find myself to be less of a perfectionist than pastry chefs. I refer to myself as more of a dessert chef than a pastry chef, because pastry implies those perfect, beautiful creations that we think of as classic French pastries, and I don’t think anyone would look at my desserts and call them classic French pastries.”

Thomas Keller called them soul-satisfying. Daniel Boulud said they make him salivate. Others are simply left speechless. Her quest for the undiscovered, for a revelation, has always driven her. If there’s a road not taken, she’ll find it and embark.

“It’s just boundless, it’s endless. Because that’s what makes it so exciting,” she says, almost breathlessly. “It’s an ever-learning experience. The industry has moved forward in so many ways over the years, with gels and foams, and while I don’t utilize those things very much, they give a new perspective, they can help you think in a different way. They’re mind-expanding. Every time anybody does something new—and we can debate whether there is anything new or original, or if we all riff on everything else—those sort of sometimes-crazy antics that chefs employ don’t always have such staying power, you can take a small element from them, and that helps the industry move forward.”

Re-enter the parsnip. Make no mistake, whoever served her that cream is responsible for some as-yet-to-be-imagined concoction. Her mother, who Fleming calls the most creative person she’s ever known, may also have a little something to do with it all.

“It wasn’t just about cooking,” Fleming says, an air of amazement wrapping around her words, pulling them this way and that so she can’t quite come up with exactly the praise or description that will do her mother justice. “She was actually the first graduating class from F.I.T., she was a fashion illustrator, but she was the most frugal person you’ve ever met, so she would just create and make things out of whatever was in her hands. They never stopped moving. Pieces of paper would transform into paper dolls. Extra pieces of lace would be transformed into angels for Christmas. She knitted like crazy, very complicated, beautiful patterns, different colors. No matter what she touched, she turned it into something. She was always doing something with her hands and her mind.”

There is a slight pause. Just enough time for the scent of fresh-baked cookies to waft forward from memory.

“And she was a great cook.”

Claudia Fleming's Pear Crisps
Claudia Fleming’s Pear Crisps, Photo: Isobel Media

Her mother’s recipe for cookie dough made it into the pages of The Last Course, along with a wonderfully funny tale of an unfortunate fate that met a batch of holiday cookies that had to be hidden from a young Claudia and her siblings. Family recipes, celebrating history, a connection to those who came before us, are special to the chef. “They are just a part of the fabric of our lives that we just want to hold onto and share it. And food is just about sharing—there’s no better way to bring people together. A family recipe, everybody can relate, and it brings back memories.”

Looking back, looking ahead. The Last Course rerelease, and all it has engendered, is by no means a last act. The next act, well, that is an exciting proposition. And it is imminent.

“I feel like I am in dire need of time to absorb again and interpret,” Fleming says. “And I think hopefully that means some travel, seeing different cultures and trying to interpret for myself what that means culinarily. That may mean America, maybe a swing through the Southern states, maybe New England. Maybe it’s Morocco. I don’t know. But I feel like it’s time.”

Wherever those sojourns lead, the chef will never be far from her desserts. They are the fiber of Fleming’s being—to create them, to offer them, to evolve them, is to be who she is. “It’s just meant to be pleasurable. I’m not trying to bend minds,” she says. “It’s just about making people happy. It’s such a simple pleasure, and to be able to provide that for people, I think that’s a pretty great thing.”

Please join us at the inaugural Dan’s Holidays in the Vines wine-pairing dinner hosted by RG|NY on Saturday, November 30, starting at 6 p.m. at RG|NY vineyard, 6025 Sound Avenue, Riverhead.

General Admission seats are $110 and VIP tickets are $150. In addition to the cocktail and hors d’oeuvres hour and the six-course wine-pairing dinner, featuring acclaimed North Fork chefs and winemakers, VIP tickets include a copy of The Last Course, meet & greet and book signing with Claudia Fleming, special pours and a signature event cocktail by Matchbook Distilling Co., special VIP bite by Grace & Grit, and a VIP gift bag.

Tickets are extremely limited, so visit HolidaysInTheVines.com for full event information and to get your seats today!

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