CHARLOTTE — In the yard, it’s inevitable there will be so-called weeds and plants that grow on their own. There are those mushrooms deemed unattractive and a nuisance popping up at random. The berries falling from a tree you didn’t know carried berries.
You’ll drive down the state highway and see tall weeds with golden tips and wonder how they came about.
You’ll move on and forget these oddities. And that’s when the forager moves in. The forager known as Clark Barlowe.
“I love the connection to being able to go out and find something that nobody planted that was just growing,” Barlowe said. “Then I take it and bring it back into the restaurant and serve something you would never really taste in any other way.”
Barlowe, 30, is a forager, chef and co-owner of Heirloom Restaurant in Charlotte. It’s a place designed to showcase natural ingredients and North Carolina farm-to-fork cuisine.
Foraging in essentially the acquisition of food by hunting, fishing or the gathering of plant matter. Foragers have knowledge of the land, a commitment to the forests, and an ability to determine and collect edible foraged ingredients.
“Foraging is a very primal thing,” he said. “You have to have a passion for learning because you are constantly learning even about things you thought you knew everything about. I thought I knew everything about chicken of the woods mushrooms. I’ve seen them. I’ve picked them. I’ve picked different varieties of them. I know what they grow on, where they grow and what season, and what temperature they grow in.
“Then this year, I saw one growing out of a rock. How does it even grow out of a rock? It should be a wood decomposing mushroom and it should need to break down the sugars in wood to actuate fruit. So, how is it growing out of a rock?”
Barlowe knows his craft. He is a walking encyclopedia that carefully recalls the details of the land, plants and forageable goods around him. He’s trained, educated and licensed. And, in case you’re wondering, the restaurant follows the rules and regulations of the State Health Department to ensure every item foraged, cook and served on your plate is safe and edible.
“Foraging is where charcuterie was 10 years ago when charcuterie was sort of the wild, Wild West when everyone was precuring their own ham,” said Barlowe. “Then someone made a mistake, someone got sick and now it’s very restrictive in how we precure hams. I don’t want to see that happen to mushrooms. I’d rather we be very restrictive up front and then we can always work back from that.
“The reason people have a fear of mushrooms is because it’s this unknown. The mushrooms come up, they fruit, they decompose and they go away,” he added. “It usually happens over the course of a couple of days. It’s this unknown thing for many.
“I am as deep into foraging mushrooms as I can get right now. I’ve learned about every mushroom in North Carolina that I can forage and that I care to forage.”
The approved species list in North Carolina includes 20 forageable mushrooms, though there are other forgaeable mushrooms that haven’t made the list.
Barlowe works with everything from chicken and hen of the wood mushrooms and reindeer moss to strawberry tops and oak leaves.
Heirloom opened in February 2014 and has earned a positive reputation through Barlowe’s culinary creations.
His resume is extensive. He’s a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and has fine-tuned his skills with stints at Mama Ricotta’s in Charlotte, El Bulli in Spain, the French Laundry in California, and the Hamilton in Washington, D.C., to name a few. He’s been featured on the Food Network and earned a name for himself in the culinary world.
Foraging requires the diligent practice of time and patience, a knack for curiosity and a keen use of the senses. Barlowe will drive down the streets of Charlotte and, with Clark Kent-esque vision, notice a mushroom growing in a tree somewhere off the road. He whips his car around and stops to collect a sample. After all, the bumper sticker on his Chevy truck does read, “I brake for mushrooms.”
He is notorious for walking up to someone’s front door, knocking, introducing himself and requesting to cut the mushrooms from their yard.
“People are really friendly. The mostly say yes and have learned who I am,” said Barlowe.
Old trees and neighborhoods, office parks and cemeteries have become his grocery store. Some foraging spots he keeps secret. Before Barlowe, serving wild and foraged ingredients on a restaurant table in North Carolina didn’t exist really exist.
Inside Heirloom, Barlowe pays homage to his family — seven generations of Caldwell County residents. He sources everything from North Carolina farmers, producers and small businesses. Even the salt, soap and liquor all hails from the Old North State.
“We want to showcase the bounty of this state to the best of our ability,” said Barlowe. “This is what lead us to wild ingredients. We wanted to do something that was really unique all over the state.”
It’s also about educating the public that mushrooms and other wild ingredients shouldn’t be feared. In fact, mushrooms were one of the first life forms.
“Twenty-three primates including humans consume mushrooms,” added Barlowe. “We could live off the bounty found from the mountains to the sea in North Carolina.”
It’s a challenge he hopes to one day try — to hike from the North Carolina mountains to the sea and live off the what’s foraged along the way.
“A chef should be a craftsman more so than an artist,” said Barlowe. “When you repeat dishes, you are giving guests the same experience every time. It’s different with wild ingredients as the flavors of the dishes will continuously change.”
And with that, Barlowe, a craftsman and chef, will forage into the depths of the natural world bringing forth a bounty for harvest.