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From Food Network To Happy Valley: Chef Gillian Clark Puts A French Spin On The Classic Diner

Oeuf Boeuf et Bacon, a French diner that opened downtown this fall, has taken State College by storm with its French-inspired menu and 1950s diner atmosphere. At the front of the diner is its owner and executive chef, Long Island native Gillian Clark.

Although Clark joined the culinary game later than most, that certainly didn’t stop her from breaking barriers with not only her inspiring cuisines but also her ambitious work ethic.

Courtesy of Gillian Clark

“I was kind of a latecomer to the field at the time. People were very young, and I was the older person,” Clark said. “When I started working in the industry, I was probably the most stable employee because I was older. I wasn’t going out and getting hungover. By then I had a family, so I was really stable.”

At first, becoming a chef wasn’t what Clark imagined herself pursuing. For 11 years, she worked in corporate communications and marketing, however, she eventually realized that it was time for a career change.

“I thought it was my dream job,” Clark said. “I left college thinking, ‘Yeah, I want to be in corporate communications…’ I found it completely unsatisfying. You never know what’s working. You never know if you’re making a difference. I used to cook to relax and say, ‘Why don’t I do this for a living?’ So, I went to cooking school [L’academie de Cuisine] at around age 30.”

Following culinary school, Clark got her first job as a chef in Virginia. After a few more chef gigs, she soon decided it was time to open her own restaurant.

In 2001, Clark created “The General Store and Post Office Tavern” in Silver Spring, Maryland, which quickly became a go-to spot for fried chicken and classic American cuisine.

While running her restaurant, Clark published an empowering memoir about her journey in the industry as a single mom called “Out of the Frying Pan,” which digs into the process of building a culture and team with her family and work.

Clark’s restaurant gained massive popularity after her appearance on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” in 2010. Funnily enough, Clark had no idea who Guy Fieri was when he stopped into The General Store and Post Office Tavern.

Courtesy of Gillian Clark

“When Guy Fieri came, I never had seen his show,” Clark said. “I really didn’t know who he was… It was an exhausting two days. I was up at five in the morning. It was just a really long day. And they would say ‘Cook this, cook that, cook this, cook that,’ and I was just like ‘Oh my God. If I cook another thing, I’m gonna die.’ The impact is there are people that go to every restaurant he features. People drove from all over the country to try our food because of the show.”

Almost a year after her Food Network debut, Clark appeared on an episode of “Chopped.”

“I flew up to New York, did an episode. I lost in the second round, but it was funny because I was so exhausted,” Clark said. “It’s really tough to do that show when you’re also running a restaurant and just fly up for a day. I was so tired.”

Although she didn’t win, shortly after her appearance on “Chopped,” Clark competed on the Food Network’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” Clark beat Bobby Flay at his own game and won with her famous fried chicken.

“I just hate doing competitions. I really hate it,” Clark said. “By the time I got to Bobby Flay, I was like ‘Can we just cook and have a good time? Do we have to compete?’ I was still having a good time. Bobby Flay is a really good guy. And one of the things is he doesn’t like to win. He’ll do his best, but he’d rather not win.”

When The General Store and Post Office Tavern closed due to landlord disputes, Clark ended up opening another restaurant in California, then spent some time as a chef in Alabama. She eventually moved back to New York, where she worked at Starbucks for four years as a member of its first culinary team.

Flash forward to 2021, Clark ventured out to State College in hopes to find a venue that would allow her to provide Happy Valley residents with a unique dining experience like no other.

Clark became familiar with the area and supported herself by making driving deliveries for GoPuff, DoorDash, GrubHub, and Spark for Walmart. Once Clark felt comfortable enough and ready to open her restaurant, she reached out to a realtor who suggested that she move into the vacant diner where Baby’s once operated.

“We wanted something that’s suitable for everybody,” Clark said. “For college students, for people that work downtown, people that live on the outskirts, draw them to downtown. So that’s why we created it. It’s a mature menu, but we still appeal to college students. I’m always surprised at the college students that come in and have what we call our French things and not just our diner classics. So, I think we have a pretty broad appeal because it’s so different and people aren’t used to having this kind of food here.”

Right from the moment her French diner opened, the response from State College has been overwhelmingly positive for Clark and her team.

“We thought it would be a slow start, but we’ve been busy from day one,” Clark said. “I’ve never had that immediate experience before. Usually, it’s like your first three months nobody knows who you are, but we’ve just been so busy these past few months.”

Since there is no such thing as a “French diner” here in Happy Valley, Clark brought a unique, French experience to life, while maintaining the classic diner aesthetic.

“Not very many people have the history and connection to a 50s diner. I mean, it was 70 years ago,” Clark said. “Unless you’re watching reruns of Happy Days, you have no association with that feeling and experience… Nobody in this area is of the generation. So, we thought we would turn the whole diner concept into something new. Rather than kind of dig up a dinosaur, we thought we would do something a little bit more creative that gave us the ability to make some interesting food that’s a little bit upscale.”

Currently, Clark and her team are working hard to start serving dinner on top of their already popular breakfast and lunch.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. The thing that makes a chef a good chef isn’t just being able to cook,” Clark said. “If you’re not an organizational genius, you’re fucked. That’s the bottom line. If you’re slow, you’re gonna lose food. If you’re busy, you’re never going to keep up. You’re never going to get enough people, you’re never going to have enough food, you’re never going to know what to do.”

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About the Author

Evan Halfen

Evan Halfen is a junior broadcast journalism major from Newark, DE, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. Evan loves all things Penn State, tailgating, being loud, just about any beach, and his puppies, Butterscotch and Wentzy. You can direct all your tips, roasts, and jokes to his Instagram: @evan.halfen or email: [email protected]

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