As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Claire Chan.
Claire Chan is the owner of both Williamsburg’s café-meets-cocktail bar, Bar Beau, and the popular West Village café, eatery, and general store, The Elk. Even from a young age, Claire loved caring for others — apparent through a childhood story when she would turn down her parent’s bed and leave them a goodnight note on the pillow. That shared connection with others, along with her boundless entrepreneurial spirit, allowed Claire to forge her path and make a niche within the ever-evolving hospitality industry.
Born in San Francisco, CA with her childhood spent in Vancouver, BC, Claire began her first job in high school at a local grocery store. A close-knit group, the store brought a warm sense of community and offered Claire the opportunity to take on the responsibilities that come with it. Claire spent freshman year of college at the University of Southern California, before transferring to the University of British Columbia, where she received herB.A.in Psychologyin 2007. Throughout university, she worked her way up through sales positions at the popular Vancouver-based clothing brand, Aritzia, and immersed herself in each stage of her service experience at the restaurant, Vancouver Cactus Club Café.
In 2009, Claire made her move to New York. Looking to marry her passion for the creative with her drive for business, she attendedParsonsto complete her AAS in fashion Merchandising. This love for the process behind aesthetics led her to a job atBergdorfGoodman. Starting at the foundation(her preferred way to learn), Claire began as an intern, moving up to assistant buyer and then buyer. After three years with the company, Claire’s professional goals shifted, as she put her sights toward entrepreneurship and making her own mark. In 2012, she began conceptualizing her first restaurant location, The Elk.
Risk gave way to reward, and Claire opened The Elk in2013. Getting back to her working roots through her own venture into the hospitality scene, Claire found the community connection she was looking for. Bar Beau, her second concept, opened in July of 2018in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. With her unique hands-on approach and day-to-day involvement in every aspect of both operations, Claire continues to be motivated as she cultivates and grows her culinary family. An avid traveler with an open heart for new cultures and cuisines, Claire thrives on creating balance both in and out of work — whether it comes in the form of exercising, cooking, surfing, or winding down with the ones she’s closest to. For Claire, this crucial balance between personal passion and ambition is the key to success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
When I was young, my parents took me on a road trip from Vancouver,
BC to San Francisco. One night, we stayed at a Radisson — it was my
first time at a hotel, and we were tired when we arrived. When we got to
our room, the beds were turned down, the bedside table lamp was on,
and there was a little chocolate on the pillow. I remember feeling
fascinated about this foreign place that was not home but felt like it all
the same. When we got home, I started doing turn-down service for my
parents and writing them little notes before bed. So, I suppose you could
say hospitality has always attracted me even from a young age.
What was it that first drew you to cooking? Can you share a story
about that with us?
All the small details that make up the overall experience is what really
draws me to the restaurant world. I find inspiration in the way in which all
of the small and large choices made can affect how a guest feels inside
a restaurant and well after they leave.
Can you share an interesting (or can be funny) story that happened
to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the
lesson or take away you took out of that story?
At the beginning of the pandemic, like so many restaurants, we had to
shut our doors and we had no idea what was in front of us. We didn’t
know when we would be back open or if we would survive through it. It
was a scary and tough time for all — but the way my team and
community pulled together was remarkable. Our chef made care
packages of food for our staff to take home, we maintained a funny text
chain sharing quarantine stories, and guests who I have only interacted
with a handful of times continually checked in on us. We were fortunate
to be able to re-open our doors, and we did so with a new perspective
and gratitude for one another.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when
you first started your journey? How did you overcome this
The people that make up the business are the most important piece of
any restaurant — from the neighbors and the guests to the staff, these
relationships are the heartbeat. When I opened my first restaurant, I
found it difficult to navigate these relationships. I learned a lot about the
value of communication and myself as a female leader. Over time, it has
become easier because I have become more comfortable and confident
in my role and as an individual.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that
customers are crazy about?
Finding the right balance of approachability, authenticity, and of course
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
For me, the perfect meal starts with a Citi bike ride (preferably an electric
one, when they’re available!) to the local farmer’s market and seeing
what catches my eye — not really having a plan for what I’ll make but
letting the produce of the season guide me. Though I admit I am partial
to summer produce: sun gold tomatoes, strawberries, corn, local
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there
something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
I feel lucky to live in NYC because there is such dynamic inspiration all
around. There isn’t one thing that I turn to for my creativity boost, but I
often find that when I go for walks around the city either in new or old
neighborhoods, I feel inspired by all the different things I observe.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact
do you think this will have?
I am about to open a 3rd location of my cafe concept THE ELK. I am
particularly excited about this one because it will be in my neighborhood
(Soho/Noho). I am hopeful it will become a staple to that community — a
community with rich history and one that I am proud to call home.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to
thrive and avoid burnout?
Sometimes I find the day’s tasks and to-do lists are so endless that I can
lose sight of the bigger picture — whether it’s my own health, my team,
or where my business is headed next. Balance is so important and you
must listen to your body otherwise burnout is inevitable.
What are your ”5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First
Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story
or an example for each.
1. Trust your instinct — your unique perspective is what sets you apart, so
2. Communication is key — your words have great effect on everyone
around you, so understanding the impact of both what you say and how
you say it is essential.
3. Location, location, location — where you choose to open your business
and the rent you pay every month will set the course and direction your
restaurant will take for years to come.
4. Community — this is what will hold you up, so keep building and
5. Lead with purpose — the ‘why’ is often more important than the ‘how.’
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your
Bar Beau’s seasonal Udon dish, where we prepare the Udon like a
traditional pasta. Our most popular cocktail is the ‘So Sorry,’ a refreshing
riff on a spicy margarita. They are both must-haves and we recommend
pairing them together.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a
movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most
amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your
idea can trigger.
The other day while in line at my local coffee shop, a stranger turned
around and offered to purchase my coffee. I was taken aback by this
small act of generosity and kindness (I was even skeptical for a minute!),
yet it inspired me to pay it forward. Kindness is free and can create a ripple effect no matter who you are, where you are from, or how much money you have. Even in a city as intimidating and anonymous as NYC, small acts or gestures can have a profound impact and drive change.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!