Meet The Chef Behind London’s First Vegan French Patisserie

Head Chef Clarisse Flon talks to Veganuary about finding veganism and her passion to change perspectives through delicious food

Clarisse Flon Holding Afternoon Tea
Clarisse Flon: head chef at Café Forty One, of La Suite West Hotel, Hyde Park

As I sit outside under the opulent leafy canopy at Café Forty One, the passionately all-vegan café and eatery at London’s La Suite West Hotel, I am overly-excited to be sampling the innovative work of Chef Clarisse Flon. Café Forty One opened its doors early last week, showcasing a contemporary alternative to traditional French patisserie favourites, and their enthused staff tell me it’s been non-stop ever since.

Today, we have 30 people for afternoon tea. Tomorrow, around 20. The dishes are doing so well, and people are coming from all over to sample the food here. It’s extremely exciting.

There’s good reason for the crowds to descend on this minimalist hotel. Clarisse’s exquisite breakfast, lunch and dessert menu reads like a true wish list of vegan delights. Three entirely plant-based menus are available for diners: “The Early Vegan” – a fusion breakfast menu featuring British, Asian and French cuisine, an “Unbelievably Vegan” lunch menu, and delectable “All Day Desserts” menu.  Impressively, you can also opt for gluten-free alternatives to the majority of their dishes as per dietary requirements, a delight for allergen diners. There are also a range of mocktails and cocktails available, and a generous selection of fine loose leaf teas.

Let’s Talk Afternoon Tea

The highlight of the café is undoubtedly the grand affair that is Clarisse’s afternoon tea menu. Upon arrival, you’ll receive a sparkling non-alcoholic drink and be offered a selection of loose-leaf teas. Soon after, a towered platter arrives, brimming with delights. There is a selection of four sandwiches on artisan breads, the highlight of which is undoubtedly the vegan smoked “salmon-style” carrot with cream cheese which is simply unbelievable. For the sweeter layers, a selection of four chef’s patisseries of the week, and two mini-scones adorned with a side dish of homemade berry compote, vegan honey and clotted vegan cream.

A Vegan Trailblazer

Clarisse Flon, head chef at Café Forty One
Clarisse has been vegan for five years since discovering better health on a plant-based diet

I had the absolute joy of devouring this culinary triumph when I met with Clarisse at Café Forty One, where I got to know the pioneering woman behind the menu. Clarisse has been vegan for five years, after suffering from undiagnosed chronic digestive illness for the majority of her life, she reached a turning point in her health and looked to alternative sources for answers.

The doctors didn’t have many answers so I started doing some research myself and watched a lot of documentaries, read books etc. Veganism made sense on all levels: health, environment and preventing cruelty.

Her career has seen Clarisse transform from a patisserie commis chef at traditional French restaurants, to passing the National French Exam for Pastry as an external candidate. Making the transition into veganism whilst working in a conventional kitchen created frustration, and so Clarisse began transforming traditional recipes in her own time.

It was very difficult when I went vegan as I was still working in regular kitchens and felt strongly disconnected with my work. It was very challenging as well to start “veganising” french patisseries that rely on butter and egg for the most part, but that’s what excited me about it, I like a challenge. As there is no current training in vegan patisserie I had to develop my own recipes and go through a lot of trial and error.

Assorted French patisseries at Cafe Forty One
Assorted French patisseries at the Café

Clarisse previously worked on her own business venture called The Sunny Spoon, a vegan popup market stall bursting with vegan treats, when she was approached to work with La Suite West.

Café Forty One is a big project and I’m very passionate about it. I came to a crossroad before coming on board where my work at The Sunny Spoon didn’t allow me to really develop my skills further and I spent a lot of time managing the business instead of developing new ideas in the kitchen. The project of Cafe Forty One seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back in the kitchen and work on my true passion.

The formal yet minimalistic setting of Café Forty One reflects the modernised recipes on their innovative menu. Clarisse describes the ambience as “a crossroad between cafe style and fine dining, a bit like a French brasserie.” Her team have taken traditional French desserts and cuisine and lovingly modernised the dishes using entirely plant-based ingredients, with no compromise on flavour, presentation or quality. Clarisse believes plant-based ingredients are all too often overlooked by the vast majority of restaurants and eateries:

I think we’re at a point where simply offering simple vegan options is not an option anymore. The demand is constantly growing and the current level of vegan options on most menus is not really keeping up. I do believe that plant-based ingredients opens us to a lot more variety, especially regarding milks or the different kind of fats. For example, using hazelnut milk in a chocolate entremet can be a great start for further development of more flavours.

Changing Perspectives, Challenging Opinions

French Toast at Café Forty One
French Toast, from the “Early Vegan” breakfast menu at Café Forty One

What strikes me as I enjoy another mouthful of delightful treats in front of me, is just how far vegan food has advanced over the past five or so years. We’ve reached an exciting point whereby the flavours, textures and aromas of animal products have all been recreated, and even improved upon, using solely plant-based ingredients. There’s simply no requirement for animal products to be used anymore. It is great food, such as that offered by Café Forty One, which is helping spread such a positive and inspiring message about veganism, quite literally via word of mouth.

It can be very hard to communicate on the topic of veganism, as people easily feel attacked or uncomfortable discussing it, but everyone can be won over by very good food, especially with patisserie. I’ve had a lot of non-vegan customers over the years, people who would try my cakes and then start a discussion about veganism. A lot of them said they thought they would have to give up patisseries if they were to go vegan, and how the food managed to change their minds. It’s good to fight the stereotypes surrounding vegan food and show people that the food is just as nice, if not better!

Besides being a trailblazer in terms of vegan patisserie and cuisine, Clarisse has her own passions in food photography and exploring:

I love running, travelling and exploring. I’ve spent a lot of time walking around London or going away for the weekend to explore new places. I have a very strong interest in art and I’m an avid reader. It can be very hard to step away from your job when you’re very passionate about it; sometimes it can be difficult to disconnect and stop answering emails or tracking social media on my days off. The best way for me is to go outside and stay away from my phone and computer for a while. Reading a good novel helps me as well, and I try very hard to keep close bonds with my friends who live in other countries.

A lot of Clarisse’s inspiration comes from being active on social media, and from her own passion for great, beautiful and artful foods:

I get inspiration from a lot of things; I’m a very visual person. I spend a lot of time on Instagram looking at pictures (not just food, it can be anything aesthetically pleasing).

I admire a lot of chefs like Cedric Grolet for his amazing patisseries or Michael Bartocetti who’s been a pioneer on the vegan french patisserie scene. I do really like Matthew Kenney’s work as well. Mostly I build the recipes from scratch, or I develop vegan recipes from previous creations and try new things every day.

Vegan Food At Its Best

Mushroom Bourguignon Pie & Mashed Potato
Mushroom Bourguignon Pie & Mashed Potato, from the “Unbelievably Vegan” Lunch menu

Believe it or not, Clarisse only has a team of four other chefs behind her. They have been trained in her own unique way of working with innovative ingredients. Talking to me, Clarisse is enthralled with grand plans for Café Forty One. She aims to develop the cuisine even further and to extend the menu’s variety to include dinner items in due course.

Clarisse is clearly a very driven chef. She’s managed to capture French cuisine perfectly, filling her menu with dishes that resonate with her childhood, and those that are sure to impress and start a conversation. What’s more, she’s a huge follower of vegan charities and animal-rights campaigns and believes her compassionate intent inspires her work. Clarisse is actively promoting veganism through her delicious menu, and is determined to help others discover the joys of a plant-based diet:

You’ll never regret giving it a try, it will open a whole new world of opportunities to you and definitely change your life for the better.

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