Behind the Kitchen: A conversation with Clark Barlowe from Heirloom

Behind the Kitchen: A conversation with Clark Barlowe from Heirloom
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This is part of a chef interview series. View all interviews here.

On a spontaneous Saturday afternoon, I met with Chef Clark Barlowe of Heirloom.

We sat in the parlor of his restaurant and I instantly felt like I had traveled back in time and that we needed to be wearing robes and penny loafers while smoking pipes. It was awesome.

I learned a lot about him in our 20 minute conversation. I found out that he’s best friends with Chef Miles Payne and they have pool parties and drink beer to celebrate the commencement of Charlotte Restaurant Week. He loves his dog. We both went to JWU in Providence, RI and both think that Patagonian toothfish is a much cooler name than Chilean sea bass.

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What are your thoughts on social media playing such a huge role in the restaurant scene?  Has it made a good or a bad impact?

I love social media for what it does for the diners who aren’t able to come to the restaurant. We change our menu everyday, so if someone comes in on Tuesday and wants to see what we are serving on Friday or Saturday, they can check on Instagram. They can see what dishes are coming up and that allows them to eat at the restaurant without actually eating there. So I like it.

I love what social media does. It makes it easy for us. Our pastry chef is much more involved with it and I’m more involved with it. Before I opened the restaurant, I think I had 50 followers, and now I’m right under 2,000 followers. It’s pretty ridiculous.

What is the first thing you do after a long day at the restaurant?

Take my dog for a walk and drink a beer. I think that’s usually the two. I get home from work and my dog is super excited to see me. It’s always ridiculous, I walk in and lay down on the floor and she just goes crazy. We play for a second and then we go for a walk. It’s a nice way to relax at the end of the day. You get to just walk around the neighborhood and just let it all go.

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For you, what is the most challenging part of running a restaurant?

Staffing is by far the hardest part – just everything about it. You feel like you finally get the staff in place and then someone gets a job offer. Especially with being chef and owner, I’m staffing back of the house and front of the house. It’s not like I just get to staff my kitchen department and then I can be hands off.

It’s nice to have people, that I feel I can empower, to hire people for the front of the house. For us, I haven’t had a turnover in the kitchen for about nine months now. I’ve had the same staff in the kitchen and they are all exceptionally talented. I’m very fortunate.

Where do you see the Charlotte food scene going in the near future?

What I hope to see and what I expect to see are more chef driven restaurants. That’s sort of the trend we are seeing now, with Aaron opening Tapas 51 and the other chef driven restaurants that are going to be opening up. I’m hopeful that, that is the trend. And that we’ll see the stagnant, corporate restaurant scene become more the days gone by, and we’ll start to see a lot of more independent restaurants similar to what you see in Atlanta. Fingers crossed. I’m kind of banking on that happening. We are also starting to see a lot more receptive diners.

Besides Charlotte [of course!], what’s your favorite city to eat your way through?

I’d go with two probably. Providence, RI. I went to school there [DITTO]. I think it’s the most underrated food city in the U.S. No one ever gives Providence any love. I worked at Chez Pascal when I lived there and it’s one of the most underrated restaurants in New England. Providence has nicer, fine dining places. Then you have like a second tier that are more like independent, casual, late night spots. That’s what Charlotte needs. There’s not a real place to go when we [chefs] get off of work at night. There’s nothing to eat.

Yeah, so either Providence, or San Francisco. That’s an easy choice though.

What is your prediction for the next “Big Ingredient” in the food world?

Fish collars and fish ribs. Fish ribs are something that I know we sort of put on the map here. Everyone talks about head to tail cooking on a pig. But a lot of times you don’t see the whole thing being utilized with fish. So when we butcher a side of fish, we keep the whole side intact. We keep the ribs on the flesh and cut the spine out. Then we take the ribs and we brine them.

Barton Seaver (I worked for him for a while in DC) taught me that brining fish was something that you could do. Especially when it comes to the oily types of fish. So we brine the ribs and grill them off. It’s just a super sustainable approach to cooking, not only with fish but also with any animal.

Collars are the same way, Chef Brian at Upstream showed me about that. We just poach the fish collars in a court bouillon and skin it, take the fins off, fry it and toss it in buffalo sauce. It looks like a chicken wing. So yea, the lesser fish cuts definitely.

Do you have any advice you would give an aspiring chef that you wish someone would have given you when you first began your culinary journey? Work for free at the best place that you can. That’s what really made my career. If I hadn’t worked at The French Laundry or ElBulli, I don’t think I’d be able to do anything I’m doing right now. Both of those were unpaid. I’d say work as long as you can in the best place you can. You’re going to learn so much and a lot of the top restaurants won’t pay if you’re someone who’s up and coming. I’ve got three people working in the kitchen for free right now. It’s incredibly flattering to me. But I appreciate them coming in with that attitude, I’m here to work. The money isn’t necessarily the most important thing, it’s the knowledge. What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants? I have a lot. One is cutting the tape. Everyone knows here, if you tear the tape in this restaurant it’s like the worst thing in the world. I will find who tore the tape. That got beaten into me at The French Laundry.  On my first day, I tore the tape. The junior sous chef found me in the back was like “Did you tear the tape??” And I was like “Well, yeah”, and he was like “Don’t ever do that again!” It was terrible. So we do that here. Also when people don’t care, that’s the worst for me. I can teach you everything else in the world. We can talk about knife cuts, sauce making, butchering, but if you don’t have a desire to learn, then everything else is a waste of time. Disrespect for ingredients is probably the easiest answer. hierloom-restaurant-fish Is there an ingredient or dish that you feel in completely overrated? Salmon. Salmon is the worst. I hate salmon. It’s just one of those things. It’s not sustainable for anywhere. You can extend that out to any unsustainable fish. That’s something we focus on here at the restaurant. Any fish that we are using has to be an extremely sustainable fish. Whether it’s wild or farm raised. I’d rather use a sustainable, farm raised fish than an unsustainable, wild caught fish. How do you juggle the work versus life balance? It’s empowering the people that I have here. If I don’t do that then I’m always here. I have a tremendous Chef de Cuisine, Nathan – without him I’d have no disconnect. For the first 10 or 11 months that we were here, I had no outside life. I’m terrible at checking my phone. It’s hard for me to turn it off. I love it. This is my life. I enjoy what I do. My girlfriend understands what I do. We’ve known each other since middle school. She knows this is my main priority right now. What do you think about this “Celebrity Chef” phenomenon? It’s a double-edged sword. It’s great because it makes people excited to go out to eat. I don’t know if we’d be where we are without it. I’ve been on Chopped and the beat Bobby Flay shows, and I like to do those shows because I like the competition. It makes people excited, but it also makes people believe that they know a lot more about food then they really do. People come in and critique like they’re a food critic. I really wish that you would evaluate the food whether it is good or not. They don’t understand the thought behind it or the concept. That’s where I think that it has a negative affect. What is your favorite dish currently on Heirloom’s menu? I love our duck confit. We always get ten ducks a week from Isaac at Harmony Ridge. It’s my favorite ingredient to cook. It’s so versatile. You’ve got the breast, legs, fat, and body, there’s just so many different ways to cook duck. Duck confit is definitely my favorite. My mentor, Matt Gennuso, taught me the method that we use to make duck confit. I’m really proud of it. It comes across every time, crispy skin, and moist and tender meat. It’s always done the way I want it. I love that dish.

  Harmony Ridge Peanut Shell Smoked Duck Breast and Beet Purées, Cottle Farm Green Beans, Duck Jus   A photo posted by Clark Barlowe (@clarkbarlowe) on

What is your favorite restaurant in Charlotte?

I think Passion 8 is fantastic and Luca is good friend of mine. Everything they do is great. I go there to eat once every two months or so. Food is always good and always consistent. Luca is very talented.

For my birthday we went there and we sat at the Chef’s table. He did all of these awesome things for us and it was insane. He was the first person to reach out to me when we first opened the restaurant. He just called me up and I had no idea who he was. He was just like “Hey, if you ever need anything – staff, resources – just give me a call.”  I took him up on that a lot.

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