Patrick Clark, a chef who helped lead a generation of Americans to embrace a new style of casual but sophisticated French cooking in the early 1980's, and then helped lead them back to the ingredients and preparations of their own country, died late Wednesday night at Princeton Medical Center in Princeton, N.J. He was 42 and lived in Plainsboro, N.J.

Mr. Clark, who had been suffering from congestive heart failure, died of cardiac arrest, his family said.

Mr. Clark first attracted attention in 1980 as the original chef of the Odeon, a pioneering restaurant in a neighborhood of gaunt warehouses not yet known as TriBeCa. As unusual as the neighborhood was the fact that Mr. Clark, just 25, was producing fine nouvelle cuisine at a time when very few black chefs went into this field. But Mr. Clark received two stars in the first New York Times review of the Odeon in 1980.

''Customers would rave on about the food, and I'd say why don't you meet the chef,'' said Keith McNally, one of the original co-owners of the Odeon, adding ''and they would be startled.''

As one of the early celebrity chefs of the 1980's, Mr. Clark rode a crest of popularity as restaurant-going rose to become a great social pastime in New York City. His cooking evolved, too, as he and other American chefs like Larry Forgione and Alice Waters re-discovered the culinary riches of American regional cooking. By the mid-1980's, when he was serving as executive chef of both the Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg, another of Mr. McNally's restaurants, Mr. Clark was no longer considered a French chef, but a representative of what was called new American cooking.

Like many chefs, Mr. Clark yearned to own his own restaurant, and in 1988 he opened Metro on the Upper East Side. With Metro's princely setting and high prices, Mr. Clark seemed to be defying the trend after the 1987 stock market crash, when many restaurants were scaling back. ''Does Patrick Clark know something the rest of us don't?'' asked Bryan Miller, a former restaurant critic of The Times, who nonetheless gave Metro two stars.

The answer apparently was no, and Mr. Clark closed Metro in 1990.

He next moved to Los Angeles, where he cooked at Bice in Beverly Hills. He then moved back to the East Coast to take over the kitchen at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., across the street from the White House. Among those who came to know Mr. Clark's cooking were President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. He was invited to become the executive chef at the White House but said no..

In 1995, Mr. Clark and his family returned to New York City, where he became executive chef at Tavern on the Green. The vast Tavern, where more than 1,500 meals are served a day, presented an unusual challenge to Mr. Clark, who was used to smaller kitchens. Ruth Reichl, the restaurant critic of The Times, awarded Tavern one star in 1995, calling him ''a terrific chef'' who was undone by poor service.

Patrick Clark grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and was inspired to cook by his father, Melvin, who was also a chef. He attended the culinary program of New York City Technical College, his father's alma mater, and later trained in Britain and in France under Michel Guerard.

Mr. Clark was a big man, and was known for his passion about cooking and eating. ''He was what true hospitality is about,'' said Michael Lomonaco, the executive chef at Windows on the World, who credits Mr. Clark with inspiring his career as a chef.

When Mr. Clark was cooking at the Odeon, Mr. Lomonaco was a would-be actor who cooked as a hobby and supported himself driving for a car service. When he heard a radio call for a car to pick up the chef and drive him home, Mr. Lomonaco sped over and picked up Mr. Clark.

''I engaged him in a conversation about cooking,'' Mr. Lomonaco recalled. ''I got him to tell me about his training, about his father, who was a chef. He inspired me at that moment to follow what had been a passionate hobby, and to turn it into a true vocation. I've always been grateful to him.''

Mr. Clark left Tavern on the Green in November 1997 after he was found to have congestive heart failure. He entered Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center to await a heart transplant, and was so miffed by the poor hospital food that he sneaked in his own cooking equipment and ingredients. The transplant never took place because Mr. Clark was also found to have amyloidosis, a plasma disorder, which ruled it out.

Mr. Clark is survived by his wife, Lynette; their five children, Aleia, Ashley, Brooke, Preston and Cameron, and a sister, Deborah Clark-Littles, of Queens.

While Mr. Clark was one of the first black celebrity chefs, he did not let racial issues affect him outwardly. ''He didn't feel there was prejudice against him,'' said Stephen Moise, the executive sous chef at Tavern. ''But he could see how young African-American kids could feel that there was a lot against them, and he wanted to be an example of somebody who succeeded by working hard and believing in himself.''

To Bruce Wynn, a younger African-American who is a pastry chef at Tavern, Mr. Clark couldn't help being inspirational because, even with his rigorous French training, his heritage still shone through.

''He lived the flavor that he grew up on, and he spread that flavor,'' Mr. Wynn said. ''He was very demanding, sometimes harsh, but he was constant. And the flavor never wavered.''

Photo: Patrick Clark prepared food in the hospital, awaiting a heart transplant that did not take place. (The New York Times, 1997)