Chefs at Home: James Clark

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James clark
From left to right: Marcey, Paige, Madison and James Clark. Photo by Kristin Prelim, KPO Photo

After spending the workweek cooking classic dishes for diners at Carolina Crossroads, plus hundreds more guests attending elegant weddings and events at The Carolina Inn, James Clark likes nothing better than to unwind at home.

He and his family live in a window-filled retreat on a 350-acre parcel in Pittsboro that feels much more remote than his short drive to work. It’s a place where he can fish brim in the shimmering lake behind the house and ride a mud-splattered ATV to hunt in woods.

But not on Sundays.

“Sunday is definitely the day for home,” James says as he peeks under a sheet of foil covering a large cast-iron skillet, one of two perched on an electric range. In one he’s cooking shrimp purloo, a flavorful one-pot rice dish; the other holds oil to fry crisp, lightly breaded okra using his grandmother’s recipe.

“I love fried okra,” says Paige, 7, who is helping her mother, pastry chef Marcey Clark, make biscuits. Paige issues similarly enthusiastic endorsements of pimento cheese, coconut meringue pie and nearly every imaginable activity. “She likes to help in the kitchen, and I like to supervise,” quips Marcey, who married James 20 years ago after they met at the New England Culinary Institute. “She nearly burned the house down once with her Easy-Bake Oven. There was black smoke everywhere.”

Madison, 14, rolls her eyes at her kid sister. She, too, has found her place in the family kitchen, where she’s mastered whoopie pies and fearlessly cooks with whatever she finds in the pantry.

James was born in Elizabeth City and later moved to Atlanta, where he started cooking during his senior year of high school. He chose to remain there when his mother moved back to a family home place after his grandmother died. He spent a lot of time with a friend who lived with his newly divorced father.

“His dad was gone a lot, so we’d just raid the freezer and cook whatever we could find,” James recalls. “Turns out, we both were pretty good at it.”

The friends moved to Charleston to attend culinary school. James decided to wait and gain experience first in restaurant kitchens, where he easily found work. He later chose New England for training out of a desire for new experiences.

“I’d never lived anywhere but the South, and I wanted to try different things,” he says. “He didn’t think that would mean me,” Marcey adds, sharing how James once asked her for advice about dating a mutual friend. “I went to the concert he planned to take her to. And here we are!”

Their romance blossomed even after James, renowned for dishes using sustainable fish, learned that Marcey is allergic to all fin fish. “I can’t cook fish if she’s in the house. I can’t even cook it the yard,” James says. “But you do when Mom is away,” pipes in Paige, who suddenly casts a sheepish glance at her mother. “Well, he does, and I’m glad,” she adds, as everyone breaks into laughter.

After pouring sweet tea and setting dinner on the table, the family joins hands to say grace. “So many blessings,” James says affectionately, surrounded by the women in his life. “Let’s eat.”

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Jill Warren Lucas

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