In this edition of Candid Chef, we spoke to Clark Barlowe, the North Carolina native behind the Charlotte restaurant Heirloom — and proponent of wild mushroom foraging — about keeping it local, all the Southern fish we should eat besides salmon, and finding great food in your backyard.
When I spoke to Chef Clark Barlowe at the beginning of the month, he was in a fantastic mood. Just a couple days before our chat, he and two members of his staff won awards from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association for their work at his Charlotte restaurant, Heirloom. That includes Pastry Chef of the Year for Ann Marie Stefaney, Restaurant Employee of the Year for Chef de Cuisine Myles Scaglione, and Restaurateur of the Year for Barlowe himself. “We made pretty much a clean sweep of the awards to be had,” he said with an audible smile.
Barlowe deserves his moment of recognition, and has that sense of self that you’re supposed to have when you’ve proven yourself as consistently as he has. He grew up in the farm community of Lenoir, North Carolina, where his family’s roots go back seven generations. After high school, he received a scholarship to study culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, which was just opening its Charlotte campus as he was graduating. He also worked for noted Charlotte restaurateur Frank Scibelli at Mama Ricotta’s. (Scibelli is now an investor in Heirloom.)
After finishing school, he left the area to work in the kitchens of the internationally acclaimed restaurants The French Laundry and elBulli, and he competed on an episode of Chopped in 2012. He’d gone forth and conquered, but like many talented people who achieve success away from their native land, he was looking for an opportunity to bring home what he’d found out in the world. So he looked to see if there was anything similar to what he wanted to do in the Charlotte area, and when it couldn’t find it, he decided to do it himself.
He opened Heirloom when he was 27 years old — a fact he admits is still hard to believe at times. “I look back on that and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I can’t believe we did it, and that we’re still here now and all the things that have gone on to get to this point.” And he immediately began making waves for his authentic approach to the sustainable gifts of food from local suppliers, from beef to beer.
He’s not shy of the fact that his boldness has been rewarded with good food for Heirloom’s guests, as well as notoriety for himself. Back in 2014, the year Heirloom opened, Barlowe made the cover of Charlotte magazine, and was named one of Charlotte Observer’s 7 to Watch. “I’ve been named Best Chef in Charlotte by pretty much every magazine that does something in Charlotte.” It’s true though; he’s been praised by Creative Loafing, Our State magazine, Local Palate, and several others.
Today, having presented the evidence and the secured financial backing that allows Heirloom to continue its quest to evolve the North Carolina dining experience, his focus is on sustainability in both business and in food. He is perhaps best known in his home state for successfully lobbying North Carolina for more than three years to allow for the legal foraging, and serving, of wild mushrooms. “That was directly because of me. And I don’t say that from an egotistical standpoint; that’s actually what happened. To me that’s probably my biggest accomplishment in four years of owning this restaurant — to make a real change in the state.”
That change made Barlowe the state’s first chef to hold a license to forage and serve wild mushrooms. He was no stranger to foraging; whenever he and his grandfather would become bored during fishing outings, they would make their way to the woods to find wild ginseng, which you could find throughout the North Carolina mountains. It was his introduction to foraging and using wild foods; his family kept the ginseng around the house, brewing it often as medicinal tea.
His foraging background found its way into his career. “I was living in Washington, D.C., and started foraging for a few restaurants, just seeing what I could do. I came home to North Carolina and got a few mentors; one of them is Ken Crouse, a micrologist and farmer in Wilkesboro. The other is Tradd Cotter, who is the man at Mushroom Mountain with growing, foraging and utilizing mushrooms.”
Barlowe gained a solid base of knowledge about where wild foods grow in North Carolina, and what can be done with them. Now he’s looking to find out how far out he can go with his culinary creativity. “We know we can utilize oak leaves and smoke with them, but can we make a jelly out of them? Can we make a tea out of them? Can we age things with them? Can we utilize oak leaves the same way the Italians use hay to smoke lamb or roast meats? I think that’s where we’re at with it now; it’s up to us to push the envelope of what’s possible.”
He said he’s figured out how to incorporate wild food into Heirloom’s menu through a recently revised a la carte menu. “It’s food that people are going to enjoy. It’s our take on shrimp and grits, our take on steak and potatoes, fried chicken, ... a burger; we have these things I sort of look at like catnip that draws people into the restaurant. And once we get them in, we still have a tasting menu that has more interesting and out-there ingredients. I do find that most of the time it takes people one or two times to come to the restaurant before we can turn them on to something new.”
It definitely gets “out-there.” Barlowe said he’d recently made yellow jacket soup. Yes, soup made from wasps. He said Chef Sean Brock put a centuries-old Cherokee recipe on Instagram a year or so ago, asking if anyone had tried it. “No one had. No one had seen it or done it.” He said he was walking through the woods a few months ago, when he spotted a group of yellow jackets flying into a hole he assumed was housing a nest, so he found the recipe’s cookbook and went for it with his chef de cuisine. “We failed. We went over and tried to dig them up, and they stung the bejesus out of us. It was about as painful and interesting as you’d imagine,” he recalled with a laugh.
So they brought liquid nitrogen from the restaurant, and went over and froze the whole ground around the nest, before digging it up. He then called Travis Milton and asked him how to do the soup. “The recipe was a skeleton. ‘Clean yellow jacket, then make soup.’ I have no idea what that means, so I took some advice from those guys and put it together. “I don’t know how the Cherokee did it, but that’s how we did it.” I asked him how it tasted, and he said it was about what you’d expect.
He said he’s constantly inspired when he sees things in nature, wondering how he can try things in the kitchen using what’s available along the road and in his neighbors’ backyards. That also drives his feelings about things that aren’t as local or sustainable, such as salmon. “I never serve salmon, because obviously it doesn’t grow in North Carolina. We want to support the fisherman here in our community. If people in the Pacific Northwest want to eat salmon, I think that’s fantastic and they should eat salmon. That’s where it comes from; that’s where it should be consumed. But if we’re talking about Florida, or North Carolina, or Texas, or anywhere in the Northeast, then no. Because the carbon footprint it takes to get that salmon to you as a consumer is so much more of a cost than anything it could weigh as a benefit for your health.
“And if you really want to get into it, the only salmon we should be eating are the wild-caught salmon, which we’re drastically depleting the populations of, like copper river salmon, or sockeye salmon," he continued. "What people are mostly consuming is farm-raised salmon that’s more beige than red or pink, which means its diet is not what salmon should be eating to get the beneficial aspects.”
His favorite salmon substitutes? “We have a fantastic population of triggerfish and grunts we could be eating. Grouper is a fish that’s underserved. You’ve also got the drum family of fish. Red drum is actually the North Carolina state fish. And from the farm-raised side of things, we’ve got sturgeon, seabass and Carolina catfish. It’s a fantastic product. And I think people don’t like catfish because they had bad catfish as a kid that tasted muddy because it was over-fried or overcooked. But if they had high-quality catfish that was prepared properly, they would love it.”
And he takes his spirits as seriously as he does his ‘shrooms and seafoods. His own personal favorites are “anything that Free Range brewery is producing. Their saisons are fantastic. They do this sourdough IPA with yeast from a local baker. It’s one of the best IPAs I’ve had. ... We hold our brewers’ feet to the fire as much as our own. We try to have our brewers sourcing their grains and hops from North Carolina farms. It’s one thing to say you’re buying local beer; it’s another thing entirely to say you’re buying local beer with local ingredients.”
As for wine, Heirloom’s is 60 percent from North Carolina; it only recently added a few Old World bottles. “I tell people North Carolina wine is where California wine was in the 1970s. You’ve seen that movie Bottle Shock, where they took the wine to France and showed up everybody with these California wine? That’s where it is now. The quality of it is there; it’s just the perception is that sweet, muscadine wine. And that’s not the case. We grow a great cabernet, a great chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. It’s just educating the consumer to what’s here and what’s out there.”
He said he tries to learn about two new wild edibles and mushrooms every year, and says he usually learns more. As for getting other Southerners to go out and forage for themselves, Barlowe is very encouraging, but also wants folks to be smart. He cites the Peterson Field Guide on edible wild plants and EatTheWeeds.com as great resources. “I always recommend someone getting a resource. Get some books that can introduce you to some simple things: dandelion greens, honeysuckle, blackberries and blueberries — things you can easily identify.”
He’s also big on the fight against food waste, although he sees his position as a chef as one that benefits from additional voices of authority. “People believe universities, they believe scientists, and they believe chefs to a lesser extent. If we’re working on something that is traditionally observed as a wasted product, like molded tomatoes or shrimp shells, we want to partner with somebody that can say, ‘Yes, this restaurant is doing it the right way, and it’s safe.’ Because historically they’ve been told it’s not. Because once you’ve said it’s safe, it’s so easy to get people to try it. And then they find out it’s delicious, and the job is done.”
And that’s what it all comes back to understanding: Clark Barlowe is a native North Carolinian, a forager and an advocate for wild and sustainable foods, but first, he’s a chef. He knows you want to eat, but he also knows he can help change minds from what we’ve been taught about food, and what’s both true and truly delicious. “That’s what we try to do,” he said. “And if we can do that, I think we’re doing our job.”