Today, I’d like to introduce you to Clark Barlowe – owner and executive chef at Charlotte’s Heirloom Restaurant.
You may know him from features in the Charlotte Observer and Charlotte Magazine, or from a stint on Food Network’s battleground cooking show, “Chopped.” Then again, maybe you met him when you lucked into an Heirloom dining experience during Queen’s Feast.
I know him from summer tennis camp at Cedar Rock Country Club in Lenoir, North Carolina.
Thinking back through 13 years of conversation, I can confidently say Clark is the only person I know who made all his teenage dreams come true before hitting 30 (he’s currently 28). Overachiever.
What were these dreams? Date Gracelyn Cruden, be an executive chef at a killer restaurant and accomplish both these things in time to brag at his high school reunion. His reunion is this year and Gracelyn will be his date.
Sitting in his restaurant’s private dining room in Northwest Charlotte’s Coulwood neighborhood felt surreal, and I may or may not have been fighting happy tears. It’s rare to see someone passionately living his or her childhood dreams. If it happened every day, I’d currently be married to the red Power Ranger and solving mysteries in the effortless style of Nancy Drew.
To me, Clark’s restaurant feels more than a little like fate. There are pieces of his history in the very bones of Heirloom, and it’s hard to imagine these pieces haven’t been waiting all along for this moment in time.
His grandmother’s biscuit-making bowl and rolling pin hang near the bar. The walls are lined with wood reclaimed from a barn at the end of the road he grew up on. The same barn contributed the restaurant’s worn metal roof. A host greets patrons from behind a 1960’s butchers block Clark’s father, Richard, salvaged from a grocery store in Lenoir. Richard also contributed a unique table made from a tree that broke his leg during his time in the North Carolina Forest Service.
Beyond décor, Clark’s history can be seen in the beehives perched on the roof overlooking Heirloom’s parking lot. He’s been cultivating three of the five colonies since he was a teenager. For those of you who are interested (which is probably all of us), he’s only been stung about 10 times in his beekeeping history. Clark’s secret for a sting-free existence? Move slowly and talk to them. Just call him the bee whisperer.
As he carefully and methodically moved around the hives, looking much like a bee at work, I asked him what lesson he’s learned from tending his tiny charges. “To take care of things,” he said. “They don’t require me, but when I brought them up to the roof, they became my responsibility.”
He takes the same approach to his community. One of the most unique things about Heirloom – beyond the menu, which changes daily – is its commitment to high quality North Carolina ingredients. A lot of restaurants classify as farm-to-table these days, but not many offer those ingredients to their visitors beyond the dining room.
“This neighborhood is kind of like the food desert of Mecklenburg County,” Clark told me. “This means there are no viable resources for good quality food. Any of our neighbors can call the restaurant if they want a chicken or ground beef or vegetables, and we’ll connect with our partners to sell them these ingredients at-cost. It’s our way to contribute to our community.”
Just like he’s making farm fresh ingredients accessible to his neighbors, he’s also made it his mission to make gourmet dining accessible to the non-foodie community (like me). A 12-course tasting menu influenced by Clark’s time in kitchens ranging from The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California to North Rock Restaurant in Bermuda can feel a little intimidating to someone who frequents Cracker Barrel (hi).
“With our tasting menu, we encourage people to order it for two. They’re slightly larger than tasting menus you’ll get in bigger cities because obviously we’re trying to make it more approachable for those who may not know what they’re getting into,” he said. “In essence, we’re building trust with our guests here in Charlotte.”
Chef Clark hard at work with the Pork and Clams! NC Wild Caught Cherry Stone Clams, Heritage Farms Crispy Pork Belly, Lucky Clay’s Organic Parsley, Rosemary Pete’s Charred Baby Leeks, Clam Jus #heirloomnc #clt #clteats #cltfood #charlotte #charlottefood #nc #northcarolina #gottobenc #cheflife #chefsofinstagram #foodpics #food #instafood @clarkbarlowe
A photo posted by Heirloom Restaurant (@heirloomrestnc) on
There you have it. In the middle of the Mecklenburg County food desert – better known as Northwest Charlotte – a 12-course tasting menu oasis awaits foodies, potential foodies and complete novices. Your menu may never look the same, but it will always be inspired by fresh North Carolina ingredients.
Before leaving, I asked Clark about his new five-year plan. He’s much less sure now than he was at 16, but we can all be confident complacency won’t be part of the equation.
Clark Barlowe is doing cool things at his restaurant Heirloom – including keeping bees on the roof. He offers a beekeeping class so you and your SO can get up-close and personal with the hives. Bees not your thing? Visit Heirloom to experience their daily-changing, 12-course tasting menu.