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One on One: James Clark

By James Wright
September 01, 2009

James Clark is happy to be back home. After years of working in kitchens all across the country - Georgia, Colorado, Michigan and Washington, D.C., to name a few spots - the talented chef has found a more permanent place in Myrtle Beach, S.C., not far from his youthful stomping grounds in North Carolina. Since coming to the Low Country in late 2007, Clark has developed a passion for local fish and getting the word out about sustainable seafood, one palate at a time.

Like many chefs, early culinary inspiration for Clark, 38, came from his mother, who prepared wonderful seafood meals at home like shrimp Creole. An avid outdoorsman, Clark's initial experiences with cleaning fish came from the fruits of his own rod and reel. But to become the chef he is now took years of schooling and tutelage from acclaimed professionals - and even a little white lie.

The fib came early on when he hoped to graduate from dishwasher to cook at Sullivan's Restaurant on Sullivan's Island, S.C. Clark had learned how to clean and cook fresh marlin and other various wild fish at his second job, and convinced Sullivan's owner that he would leave unless he was promoted to the kitchen, which he soon was (it wasn't exactly true, he says, but it worked). He quickly proved his worth and his experience there gave him the motivation to pursue a more ambitious culinary career. When he enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute in Essex Junction, Vt., he met his future wife, Marcey, a pastry chef, with whom he is raising two daughters. "Love at first sight," he says.

Over the next decade or so, Clark jumped from restaurant to restaurant to advance his skills, including an internship at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans and two separate ventures in Charleston, S.C., with acclaimed chef Louis Osteen, whom Clark considers his mentor.

"He's the forefather of Low Country cuisine," says Clark. "He gave me insight on developing flavors and cooking techniques, things I'd never thought of before. He basically taught me what it means to be a good cook."

Now, as executive chef at the Marina Inn at Grand Dunes in Myrtle Beach, Clark is calling the shots, which includes sourcing all the various types of lesser-known fish like amberjack, triggerfish, hog snapper and broomtail grouper, all of which he says are responsibly harvested. I spoke with Clark in July, shortly after he prepared a meal for Culinary Institute of Charleston's Sustainable Fish Initiative fund-raiser.

WRIGHT : How does your 
day usually start?

CLARK : First thing I do is roll over and call Wayne [Mershon], owner of Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet. He sponsors the boats, takes care of the fishermen's dock fees and ice and buys the fish from them. I call him to see what boats are coming in, which could be from midnight to first thing in the morning. Once they're ready, that's when I take the 25-minute drive there and watch them unload the boats. They're all three- and four-day boats, tops, that run no further than 60 miles from the inlet. They have an assortment of fish like mahi, wahoo, black bass, grouper and snapper.

Wayne has a few chefs he cuts fish for. I was introduced to him by a purveyor whose fish was sent from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta and then back again, which made no sense to me. So I developed a relationship with Wayne to get the fish direct. I get to learn everything about that day's catch, including the boat, the gear they used, how long they were at sea and the weather conditions they faced. It builds a story that I can tell my guests.

 

How difficult is sourcing 
sustainable local seafood?

It's probably one of the easiest things I buy. I'm having a tougher time sourcing local produce than local fish. I also use Livingston's Bulls Bay Seafood in McClellanville, S.C., where I get fresh shrimp, clams and softshell crabs. Seafood has been very easy; there are a lot of great resources and it wasn't too hard to stumble across them.

 

Why such a focus on local seafood?

It's fresher and it helps support the local economy and the quality is unmatched. And with the relationships you develop with farmers and fishermen, you learn so much about what you're cooking and serving. Everything I buy is domestic.

The day I found out I was going [to Windsor Court Hotel for an internship], I knew my career had begun. It was a great time to be there, because the chefs could get anything from around the world, like beluga caviar. But that got way out of hand. I read an article about a chef in Las Vegas who was bragging about his monthly airfreight bills. I thought it was ludicrous. I think that whole idea has been blown out. Buying as much as you can locally has always been a better route to go.

 

What is your responsibility 
regarding sustainable seafood?

I take a lot of thought in staying away from things that are not considered sustainable. I read a lot, but there's a lot of information out there that is tough to make sense of. There's a lot of conflicting information; it all needs to get on the same page. I like to work with local fishermen who want to provide people with sustainable seafood because they want to see their businesses continue on and one day leave it to their families.

 

What fish did you prepare for the Culinary Institute's fund-raiser?

Triggerfish. It's a phenomenal fish, both the queen trigger and the gray trigger. It's got white flesh but has a firm texture, similar to lobster or monkfish. A lot of people had never experienced it and they loved it. And there's plenty of 'em. Those are the fish that I always jump on, but those are the ones the fishermen want to keep for themselves! They know I'm an easy sell for cobia, scorpionfish and white grunts.

 

What is your customers' level 
of sustainability awareness?

It's low, and it needs to be expanded. I work on sustainability with the servers, who can then reiterate that to our guests. We rely on the guest-and-server connection. That personal conversation about our vision is important.

 

Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

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