Seven to watch: Heirloom restaurant owner Clark Barlowe pushes hard for sustainability

Charlotte restaurateur and chef Clark Barlowe is gaining as much attention for his philosophies on sustainability and community food as he is for his talent in the kitchen.

The 27-year-old owner of Heirloom describes the restaurant as globally inspired and locally sourced – all ingredients, including spirits, are grown, raised or created in North Carolina – but not as any single type of cuisine.

“It’s whatever the ingredients dictate,” Barlowe said.

His resume includes a stint at the nationally distinguished The French Laundry restaurant in California, competing on Food Network’s “Chopped,” and working for local restaurant magnate Frank Scibelli at Mama Ricotta’s while attending culinary school at Johnson & Wales.

Barlowe is involved with a number of local organizations, including Green Teacher Network, a local partnership between educators and community partners that hopes to advance academics, environmental sustainability and student and community health through schoolyard gardens.

When Barlowe, a native of Lenoir, isn’t in the kitchen – or planning a monthly artisan dinner that brings patrons together with those who grow the food they’re eating or wine they’re drinking – he’s often out foraging in field or forest for ingredients not readily available at most restaurants, something he learned from his grandfather and father.

It took him more than a year to build his statewide system of farmers, growers, suppliers and artisans, a collective resource he’s happily shared with other Charlotte restaurants.

“That’s the whole idea of what we’re doing here, trying to build a better network for the farmer.”

Barlowe knew he wanted to own his own restaurant before he was 30, but even after working in kitchens around the world, he still cooks at Heirloom every day. “If I wasn’t cooking, it wouldn’t be a fun restaurant for me.”

Those who know Barlowe note that he has talent, but say it’s his conviction and sense of community that sets him apart.

Kris Reid, co-founder and executive director of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, said Barlowe’s support of all aspects of local food demonstrates his integrity.

“It’s not just about pushing out plates for Clark, it’s about community,” Reid said.

“He’s crushing expectations. … The way he embraces old-school chef tactics, chefs were farmers, they grew food at one point,” Reid said. “He really embraces that (and is) taking it to a different level that you don’t see produced on a wide scale in any city in the country.”

Heirloom – located on Bellhaven Drive in the Coulwood and Mountain Island Lake area of northwest Charlotte – has been open less than a year, and its operating philosophy is driven by Barlowe’s views on sustainability.

“We don’t use beef brain and beef tongue and beef cheek to be cute. … We have no intention of wasting any part,” he said.

The restaurant has never purchased a “cut” of meat, but instead uses the entire animal, whether it’s a duck or pig.

“Otherwise you’ve wasted the farmer’s time or the animal’s life,” he said, noting that a farmer can work anywhere from three months to a whole year growing a crop or raising an animal. “We utilize it to its highest potential.”

Cat Harris, publisher and founder of Edible Charlotte magazine, said Barlowe’s convictions show a strength of character, helping set him apart from trends and other local chefs.

“Foraging might seem cool and trendy, but for him, it’s more a desire to understand where he comes from and give back to the community,” she said.

“It’s less about wanting to make a good meal, which he definitely wants to do, but understanding what’s on the plate.”

The goals Barlowe has for himself and for Heirloom in 2015 are bigger than just creating great food.

He would like to get more regional and national coverage not just for his team, but also for the larger Charlotte food scene.

“Any time I’m feeling arrogant, I look at my checking account and am humbled,” he said with a laugh. “We’re like any small business. … We try to take it day by day.”

Barlowe also wants to change the food culture in Charlotte, to get people to realize great quality food isn’t much harder or expensive than what’s already easy and convenient for them to eat.

His work with the Green Teacher Network includes teaching students about growing local ingredients, which makes them more likely to eat and cook with them.

“It’s so exciting to see a kid who plants it as a seed, then get to cook and taste it,” Barlowe said.

“Even if I didn’t have any of this,” he said, gesturing around the dining room of Heirloom, “That would be worth everything.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer