In a city full of flashy restaurants, King, located on a quiet corner of New York’s Soho neighborhood, stands out for its understated elegance. The dining room feels almost like a living room. The menu of Italian and French food changes daily, yet somehow manages to capture exactly what you’re in the mood to eat every time. The service is calm and thoughtful. Every night is like being at the dinner party of an extremely chic, very-skilled-in the-kitchen friend.
One of those friends is Clare de Boer, who, along with partners Annie Shi and Jess Shadbolt is the visionary behind King. De Boer was recently nominated for the James Beard Awards’ Rising Star Chef of the Year, one of the industry’s highest honors for recognizing young talent. The nomination is a testament to de Boer and her partners’ intuition and steadfastness in the face of a grueling city—one that they are still relatively new to, having moved here from London in 2016.
But even de Boer has to cool her heels every so often, and when she does, she usually has a drink in her hand. I caught up with her on her day off to talk about King, de Boer’s delightfully fancy tastes in beer—Heady Topper, for the win—and how British pub culture far outweighs American drinking culture.
You and Jess had very cushy jobs as cooks at the River Café, one of London’s most iconic restaurants. Why give that up and move to New York to open your own place?
I think that we saw New York as this unattainable land of opportunity where you can really make it on a real world stage. The challenge was really enticing. Our partner Annie, who we met in London, was really eager to move back here because her family is from New York. I loved my time at the River Café, but I had a real deep desire to do something of my own. When we met Annie, we knew she was the ideal person to do it with. We conceived the menu at a Szechuan restaurant and decided we would open a restaurant.
Social life in England centers around the pub in the way that in New York it centers around the restaurant.”
So many critics have tried to pin down the type of food that’s served at King, and it’s hard to do! What do you see as the vision for the cooking you all are doing?
When we were opening, people kept asking us for a concept, and we were always like, “We don’t have a concept! It is a daily changing menu full of things we love to cook.” If we had to categorize that or draw a line around it, it would be regional Italian and southern French—very sunny food from the regions we love traveling to. I feel lucky that we’ve really been allowed to do whatever we want and we don’t have to necessarily explain ourselves.
Has that style evolved over time?
I think the evolution has been really incredible. We wrote our menu the day we opened, and I think at the beginning, we were limited by our desire for perfectionism. As we got more comfortable with ourselves, and as people have responded to our style—which is very pared back and natural—we have been able to lean into who we are more. The best food that we create is the most spontaneous, and it is now backed up by this confidence we have in doing our own thing.
Is it hard being this quiet, understated voice in a city full of loud, boisterous restaurants?
It is authentic to us, but it can be a challenge to explain that style to other people. When we opened and we were on these hot lists for Eater and Grub Street, we attracted the wrong clientele—the people who just wanted to Instagram everything, and they didn’t get it and didn’t necessarily like it. But over the course of time, we have attracted people that really appreciate what we do. We have a wonderful set of regulars. People are more primed for our style of cooking, which is so liberating! But we have been introverted since we arrived. We were hinging on being outsiders, because we didn’t know what was hip. We have always stuck to our guns. We are a group of three, and there is safety in numbers, so if we all thought something was good, we could do it.
London is famous for its pub culture. How do you feel about pubs?
There is a pub opposite my house in London called the Churchill Arms and it is one of those British pub icons. It is covered in flowers, it is on the corner, and it is just so quintessential—I always go there when I go home, and it makes me feel more than anything like I am back in London. I always get an extra dry pear cider.
Why do you think pub culture is so essential to British culture?
Pubs really make you feel like you are at home. They are super cultural. You are supposed to get stuck in, if that makes sense? Social life in England centers around the pub in the way that in New York it centers around the restaurant. People cook at home but they go out to the pub.
Do you have any favorite English beers?
Most of my favorite beers are actually from Vermont. My boyfriend is half Vermonter, and so whenever he goes back he brings me a slew of awesome beers. My favorite is Heady Topper.
Wow, you have very fancy tastes in beer!
We definitely save them for special occasions—like the first time the sun really comes up on the stoop, we will have a Heady Topper while looking at the skyline, or when we go camping, we will bring one along. I love it because it tastes almost like a spritzer. And the cans are really big! I mostly think I love it because I associate it with campfires and stoop sitting. It is a signifier of summer memories.
Do you have other favorite summer beers?
My boyfriend has a drawer full of beers, and I drink whatever is in there. I know I love Harpoon IPAs—you know, that green can with the funky lettering? My other favorite drink, which is not exactly a beer, is Etienne Dupont cider. I first tried it at the restaurant Momofuku Ko, and it was served in this beautiful Zalto wine glass, and it was so revelatory to take a cider or a beer, which is usually drunk from a can in a smelly pub, and enjoy it in such an elevated way. It was such a transformative experience. That cider itself was also so clear tasting and really dry at the same time, but it still had that apple-ness that sometimes gets lost when a cider is so dry. We have that cider on the menu at King now. We had our first day of outdoor seating last week, and I got myself one of those ciders and just held down on the terrace.
What are the beer offerings at King like?
We are constantly having this debate about whether we go democratic and serve really accessible, affordable beers that people know like Victory IPA, but then Annie will go find these crazy, beautiful, rare beers! So, it’s a balancing act.
If you were to create a custom beer for King, what would it be?
It would be the kind of beer that verged on kombucha—cloudy, unfiltered, dry and with a little bit of funk.
To look up and feel like people appreciate what we do, which is pretty unique in New York, feels pretty gratifying.”
Congrats on the James Beard nomination! How does it feel to have this tremendous honor under your belt?
I was shocked and delighted when I found out. We have always done our own thing and kept our heads down since we opened, and to look up and feel like people appreciate what we do, which is pretty unique in New York, feels pretty gratifying.
How did you celebrate? Did you drink a beer?
I hid! I didn’t tell anyone at the restaurant! I literally acted like it didn’t happen [laughs].
You told me earlier that you really enjoy shandies. Any particular variety you love?
I like any kind of beer with fresh lemon juice. It’s like a beer Arnold Palmer! We have a cocktail on our menu that has fresh Meyer lemon juice and beer, and it is just so good because it tastes essentially like a beer lemonade.
What’s your favorite thing you have recently cooked at King?
We make Carta di Musica [a thin, crisp flatbread] with rosemary and salt, and there is always this moment of creativity and greediness at the beginning of service where I just go down the line and put stuff on it and stuff it in my face. The other day I topped it with pea shoots, ricotta, and peas we had preserved in olive oil. It was the most delicious thing.
Any beer you would pair that creation with?
Sour beer! I love the taste of sour beer.
What’s next for you professionally?
I have a bit of land upstate, and I really want to plant some ivy and grow my own food. I would love to build a chicken coup and raise my own guinea hens! My first planting season for my land is coming up, so I’m trying to get the soil in order. I’m going to test some of the seeds from Dan Barber’s new company, Row 7.
And for King? What’s next there?
Everyone always asks us that question. But I think King was born out of something that is so authentic—it was just a passion and desire to create our perfect space. Opening a second restaurant for the sake of it would be fraudulent. I wouldn’t open a restaurant without having more to say that I couldn’t express through King—either an evolution of my cooking style or the ability to have a wood oven. Or if I needed an outlet for the huge glut of glorious produce from my farm land upstate, ha! My point is: I’m not going to open something for the sake of opening it.