By Becky Billingsley
Saturday, June 9, 2012, Myrtle Beach - Today is Executive Chef James Clark's last day on the job at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes before he starts work at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, N.C., and many locals are reminiscing about his contributions to the Myrtle Beach restaurant community.
Chef Clark took over as Executive Chef at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes just in time for Taste of the Town in October 2007. It was his second day on the job, and he put out hundreds of samples of Curry Shrimp and Coconut Rice. He and his team earned the People's Choice award for Best Entrée.
This was Chef Clark’s second spin around the Grand Strand dining scene. The Orangeburg native worked in Charleston-area restaurants and discovered he likes the culinary life, and then attended and graduated from New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. That’s where he met his pastry chef wife, Marcey.
After school the couple headed to New Orleans, then Atlanta, and then to Charleston where he was executive sous-chef for Louis Osteen at the Charleston Grille. When in 2002 Clark came to Vidalia's at the Radisson (which is now the Sheraton) Convention Center Hotel in Myrtle Beach, it was his first executive chef position.
For two years James cooked his simple “less is more” style of Lowcountry Cuisine, and enjoyed living near his extended family.
“I really learned a lot of things [at Vidalia’s],” he said in a previous interview, “like more on how to run a business, run a restaurant.”
However, in 2004 when the opportunity was presented to be executive chef at the then two-month-old Palette, a restaurant/art gallery in the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., he accepted the challenge. He and Marcey and their daughter, Madison, headed north.
The next stop on the D.C. tour was as Chef de Cuisine at DC Coast Restaurant, and then the family moved to Colorado. He was executive chef at Isle of Capri and Colorado Central Station, a casino that needed their menu updated.
After 18 months that mission was accomplished. The Clarks were happy when an old friend with whom James worked at Palette, Axel Suray, called and said he was looking for a chef. Suray had moved away from Washington D.C. and was then vice president at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes.
So the Clark family, expanded to include Paige, then 10 months old, moved back to the beach and back near family. They lived in Carolina Forest, and the chef liked he had only a five-minute drive to work
For almost five years, Myrtle Beach had him at a peak of excellence. Clark also knows how to hire talent, and his pair-up with Pastry Chef Tina Spaltro and an exceedingly talented kitchen staff set many bars for culinary distinction achieved through natural and local ingredients.
He created Lowcountry dishes like Pimento Cheese with Lavah and Bacon Pepper Jam, and Crispy Skinned Duck Breast with Blue Corn Grits, Charred Scallions and Fig/Ginger Reduction.
He'd visit Wayne Mershon at Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet, and bring back to the WaterScapes kitchen delicacies such as hogfish and lionfish. Lionfish wasn't on culinary radar locally until Clark attended a seafood symposium in Charleston a couple of years ago and learned the fish, which was considered an invasive trash fish, could be good to eat. So he cleaned and cooked lionfish, fed his customers well and helped the environment at the same time.
The chef procured fresh eggs from Travis Hughey in Andrews, and saved kitchen scraps to feed Hughey's chickens. Many more local food sources were sought out during Clark's tenure here, and he listed them all on his menu, so diners knew from where their food originated.
His belief that using three or four quality ingredients, and preparing them with a minimum of fuss, helped make the Marina Inn a choice spot for weddings, meetings and other functions.
Beyond the hotel, the chef was happy to be an ambassador for his company and for the community, traveling to different cities for culinary demonstrations to show journalists the deliciousness of Lowcountry cooking, and giving media interviews in his slow drawl to explain why Myrtle Beach is a gastronomic destination.
Local charities benefited from Clark's involvement, such as the March of Dimes and many more. He also earned awards, with a pinnacle being the 2010 Sante Award for excellence in sustainability.
On June 7, the chef said he is sad to leave the Marina Inn, but is looking forward to new challenges.
"This is a great hotel and is a beautiful place, but I feel like I have more things to accomplish," he said. "Chapel Hill is a great organic town. I hope the kind of food I do will mold well into that county. It's a historic hotel with a lot of community support behind it.
"I'm really gonna miss this hotel, but the worst is I'll miss working with Tina [Spaltro]. And I think there is an incredible collaboration of chefs in this town. Curry Martin, Julien Lancrerot, Brad Daniels, Bill Hartley, Ryan Coffindaffer. I'm going to miss having that camaraderie and exchange of information, ideas and cups of sugar.
"I'll miss the relationship I've had with Horry-Georgetown Technical College and being able to recruit interns like Kathy Banta and Mirealla Ross.
"Horry County has got a lot of richness to it, a lot of farmland that makes good food. Seafood helped put this restaurant on the map, and I'm certainly going to miss that.
"I'll miss Wayne Mershon at Kenyon Seafood, Sarah and Sam Bellamy at Indigo Farms, Travis Hughey at Hughey Farms. I've been very blessed to have these people with their products. Scott Lee - nobody provides service like Scott, and I'll miss hunting and fishing with him, too."
Some of Chef Clark's friends and co-workers expressed thoughts about Chef Clark's time in Myrtle Beach:
Pastry Chef Tina Spaltro, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes:
I am sad. So sad. Its been a great 5 years. I have learned a lot. Laughed a whole lot. Grown a lot. I think people come in and out of your life for a reason. They help you see things that maybe would have passed you by. I hate to say goodbye but I try not to think of it like that. I just try to be thankful for a time spent together. Love, t
Pamela Shelley, Marketing Director, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes:
I am so glad to have had the opportunity to work with Chef James these past 4 years at the Marina Inn. He was constantly sought after for recipes, print, radio and TV interviews, blogs and on and on. He was always happy to participate! As marketing director, he made my job really easy since he was always willing to represent WaterScapes at Marina Inn and/or Myrtle Beach with a positive attitude! He has positioned WaterScapes into a sought after local restaurant of choice with his stance of selecting the most sustainable products prepared with simple ingredients. My highlight with James was receiving the 2010 Sante Award for excellence in sustainability. Myself, James and his wife, Marcey attended the awards celebration in Napa, Calif. I am sure this is only the beginning for James and I hope that he remembers all of us. Good luck as Executive Chef of the Carolina Inn!
"Captain" Jim Morgan, barbecue pit master and radio personality, Easy 105.9
With no offense intended to other area chefs, and we have many excellent ones, I always considered him the Grand Strand's best chance to bring home a Beard award. (I don't count [Louis] Osteen because he won while he was in Charleston). The attention a local chef winning a Beard award would bring to our very under-rated and misunderstood beach as a culinary destination would be incredible for many of our deserving eateries. However, we still have people able to pick up the mantle.
Curry Martin, Chef/Owner, Aspen Grille, Myrtle Beach
I had a hard time finding good local sources for products when we fist bought the restaurant. James was very willing to share his sources. It takes a lot of time and effort to find great products and his willingness to help me out was a testament to him as a chef and person. He definitely raised the bar for food in Myrtle Beach.
Lynn S. Saia, Office Administrator, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes:
Chef James has a way of giving everything a unique flavor from the food he prepares to the environment he creates. He will truly be a hard act to follow. Chef should be very proud of all that he has accomplished at the Marina Inn. We will all miss him and we wish him all the best in his new endeavor. It was a pleasure knowing him and working with him.
Executive Chef Louis Osteen, Louis's at Sanford's, Pawleys Island
James worked for me both at the Charleston Grill and Louis's on Meeting Street. He is one of the most gifted, involved chefs that I know. He doesn't know the word NO. He truly puts his heart and soul into his work. and for what it's worth, he brought me the only bottle of Walnut Liqueur that I have ever had. He'll succeed with flying colors at the Carolina Inn. And I hope I can get the friends and family rate there.
Crystie Leggett, Sales Manager, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes:
We at the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes carry heavy hearts this week as we say goodbye to Chef James. His uncommon talent blended with a heart of gold and a whole lotta southern charm creates a heapin’ helpin’ of the perfect flavor!! We will miss you terribly, Chef. Wishing you the VERY best of luck…
Andrea Childers, Catering and Conference Services Coordinator, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes:
Chef James is the best! Not only is he an amazing chef, he is a great friend as well.” Chef – thanks for everything – you will be missed!
Wayne Mershon, Kenyon Seafood
James is one of the few chefs who truly understands the use of local products, from land to the ocean. He has came and picked his own fish from our local commercial fishing fleet and then cleans and prepares them, not many chefs can boast about doing this. He has became a friend also and will truly be missed by myself and many others. Myrtle Beach is losing a TOP CHEF.
Ann Shipman, Premium Protein Specialist, Sysco:
I've been blessed to have a personal and professional relationship with him and his family. Friend, mentor...he always taught and educated me. He knew I wanted to learn and I sure did. For James, it's all about quality in the food he buys, knowing who he buys from and having great relationships with his suppliers.
He's a family man, loves the land and sea and a wonderful friend. Our loss is Chapel Hill's gain and we plan to road trip it there as often as we can. After all, my blood is Tar Heel Blue! I know he's going to be the talk of the food scene in RDU.