Clay Triplette

April 1992

Food Arts presents the April 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Clayton—"Clay"—Triplette for distinguished service far beyond the call of professional duty; more precisely for his devoted day-to-day, decade-to-decade protection, preservation and perpetuation of a unique American gastronomic institution: James Beard and the foundation which now marches on under the late food guru's banner and New York City roof.

Asked to describe his long-playing double engagement role, Triplette replies, "When people asked if I was his houseman, steward or what, Mr. Beard would answer, 'No, he's my majordomo; he manages everything, including me!;" In Beard's will, all of his belongings and memorabilia were to be auctioned off to benefit Reed College, but as Triplette points out, "I was the only ornament in the house they didn't sell, you know." Jokes aside, it is Triplette's continued vigilant presence and welcoming kindness that binds the present-day Beard House, by now nationally known as a Carnegie Hall for performing visitor chefs and their crews, to the vanished golden age of Beard's imperial reign. "Clay supplies the magic karma" is how one Beard House devotee sees it.

Triplette was born in Buffalo, in 1927, of an Iroquois-Irish mother and Afro-French father from Tennessee. His mother taught him to cook: "She was great, she made simple delicious things like all-day country stews with smoked ham hocks and potatoes, cornsticks in cast-iron pans brushed with grease from the bacon or sausage fat jars. We didn't call it soul food then, we just called it something to warm the belly."

The urge to become a dancer led him to New York City to the classrooms of the great choreographer/stage star Katherine Dunham. "I wanted to learn that step of hers that made you look and feel like a great flying African bird. And I flew." After some club engagements, he moved on to other work, at one time "doing beautiful arrangements with a florist in Elsa Maxwell's and Joan Crawford's apartments," and for Nancy and André Surmain (founders of Lutèce in New York City), "walking their bassets—real nasty little dogs." The Surmains arranged for a job interview with Beard; they met and Triplette signed on for a two-week trial run to see how he'd take to a cooking school. The die was cast.

The two entered into a working relationship of total mutual trust. "Mr. Beard would leave money all over the place, and I'd take it and throw it on top of this high old chest, it got to be his bank whenever he ran out of cash. The only time I ever nearly got fired was when I made two-cent entries for A&P bags in my receipt book; he thought it was an insult to both of us. He'd say, 'Don't be mean with my money,' but I'd say, 'I'm not gonna let you pay that kind of money for this and that.' That's why I insisted on making his glace de viand instead of paying some crazy fortune for it at Maison Glace. I'd come in early each morning and make all his stocks. I was Mr. Beard's professional buyer for all of his cooking classes: He'd hand me the recipes in the morning and make me figure out how much we'd need. He said that was my job! I'd get on my bicycle and run all over to get Polish hams or go to the green market or get the best smoked fish. And we did all his parties together. We were in kitchen cahoots. He told me recipes he never put in a book—like homemade sausage baked on thick slices of navel orange to go with little game birds. I taught him my mother's cornsticks and such, and made his lunch—he loved cornbread and chicken wings, French toast with lots of syrup and butter. I worked with Julia Child—she asked me to stay on after she and Peter Kump got the Beard House going—and Jacques Pépin, Simca, Madhur Jaffrey, the whole clan. As long as I'm in the kitchen, I'm never too proud to peel onion, potatoes, whatever.

"Mr. Beard would really be pleased to see these young chefs here today. I think they're absolutely divine, unbelievable, such techniques; what they can do with their knives, they're fantastic. And they're so nice to everyone, especially those from California. They're too good. I tasted a lot of their food and gained 30 pounds.

"I still come in every morning around six to receive all the deliveries. The truckers all know me. If I'm late, they'll wait. But I'm going to retire. I arrive in the dark and go home in the dark. I'll go down to the islands and get some rest, but don't you worry, I'll be back. I think maybe I'll cook for the homeless, while I still can—it's really a sad thing, young people like that who go astray."

He roots around in a locked box for prized keepsakes. "This key was an award some people gave Mr. Beard. He gave it to me and said, 'Here, Clay, keep this, it's the key to my house and my heart.'"