February 6, 2017
There is an authenticity that is woven into Heirloom Restaurant, from its humble interior and its “community driven” menu to the experience of dining amongst vintage photographs and rustic jars of pickled vegetables. That authentic spirit originates with the Executive Chef and Owner, Clark Barlowe. The restaurant, which opened its doors in 2014, has stayed true to its mission of creating a jovial shared experience around community dining, while also experimenting and constantly refining.
“It all comes back to my family,” said Barlowe about how he got started in his culinary endeavors. From seven generations of North Carolinians, Barlowe’s family always had a farm and his interest in food started there. At 15, he began washing dishes at Bud’s Pub in Lenoir, NC and one of the chefs recommended he consider attending Johnson & Wales, which was opening in Charlotte at the time. Fast forward several years and a degree later, Chef Barlowe was making a name for himself in the culinary industry working in the kitchens of the famed Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, Mama Ricotta’s and competing on Food Network’s Chopped.
After spending a year in Bermuda revamping a restaurant, Barlowe was itching to get back to the States. “I said to myself, if there is anyone doing the food that I want to do in North Carolina then I’ll go work for them,” Barlowe said, “but I looked around and couldn’t find anyone who was focusing on truly wild edibles, so I decided to open something.” And thus the inception of Heirloom.
Scouting several locations in Western NC, like Boone and Blowing Rock, and having plans fall through, Barlowe found himself in a former fish-camp/quick-service sports bar on the westside of Charlotte. But what to call it? “That was actually my mom,” said Barlowe. “Most people hear ‘heirloom’ and think of tomatoes but there are heirloom ingredients in almost any vegetable or fruit you can think of. An heirloom seed is one that has never been changed since its origin. It’s the original seed.” This theme is apparent in every nook of the restaurant’s interior which is adorned with heirlooms from Clark’s very own family. After four months of renovation and conceptualization the restaurant was ready to start cooking.
The sourcing of ingredients is the bedrock for Heirloom’s menu. It may seem appropriate to classify the restaurant as “local” or “farm-to-table” or any similar buzzword, but Barlowe prefers a more specific classification. “We don’t call ourselves a farm-to-table restaurant, we don’t call ourselves a locally sourced restaurant. I try to say we are a community driven restaurant because we source all of our ingredients from North Carolina. That gives people a clear boundary,” said Barlowe. “It’s fantastic to work with organic produce when we can get it in but even that isn’t as important as working with a small apple farmer who may have to spray his crop once a year so he can feed his family that winter. That’s more important to me; it comes down to people.”
In addition to working with North Carolina farmers, Barlowe actually sources some ingredients himself by foraging for them: “My grandfather used to take us fishing and afterwards we would all go looking for ginseng. Ginseng was the first real ‘foraging thing’ in NC. That was how I became interested in it… Imagine opening up a pantry of ingredients that no one else is working with. It makes our food different and interesting and it creates a conversation around the dishes.” For those interested in foraging there are two books Southeast Foraging by Chris Bennett and The Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants.
These values have been the principles upon which Barlowe crafted his new menu. With the help of Frank Scibelli who recently partnered with Heirloom, Barlowe created an à la carte menu to accompany a six-course fixed menu (which is a change from the previous, exclusively fixed menu). “The great thing about Frank is he has this way of being able to look at a market and see what is lacking. He told me that I was really missing this approachable food that makes people feel comfortable coming in and eating, and I was so involved in it I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” he said.
Some of the crowd favorites on the new menu include the crab cakes (which are modeled off of the nationally recognized crab cakes found at Clyde’s Restaurant in DC), the fried chicken (based off of Barlowe’s Grandmother’s recipe), and the ribeye steak.
Though the menu may look a little more traditional, don’t be fooled, the food itself isn’t lacking an ounce of innovation and will continue to shift and change like the seasons: “We are developing something around using leaves as a culinary ingredient. We started experimenting last year with them and I think we are the only people doing it. This year we did oak leaf jelly, braised pork in maple leaves, wrapped things in fig leaves which take on a coconut flavor when roasted, and made stocks and soups.”
According to Barlowe, the food scene in Charlotte changed significantly since he attended school here in 2005 and even since opening Heirloom in 2014. What started as steakhouses and chains has evolved to include many more chef-driven restaurants: “I think Charlotte is one big thing away from becoming a food city.”
Between running the restaurant, creating masterful dishes in the kitchen, working on a new cookbook, and sourcing new ingredients Barlowe is well on his way to creating that next big thing. When he isn’t busy with business, he can be found rock climbing at the White Water Center or spending time with his partner, Gracelyn, who keeps him reenergized.
More photos from our most recent visit to Heirloom: