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Quick action on the hot line.
Photo by Debora Small

Chef Chat: Charles Clark, An Experience Guy

Charles Clark rolled up to his first tasting interview for a chef position, first cooking interview for that matter, with his knives, a boom box, and a tape of the Gypsy Kings. The task was to cook dinner for 12 people. Fresh out of culinary school he moved like a tornado; pots, pans and ingredients piled up, the blaring music urged him on, as he focused on impressing the guests. Impress them he did; they offered him the job over ten different candidates.

Twenty plus years later the charisma of chef Charles Clark burns bright as ever as he describes food, experiences; past, present and future. Over time he's proven himself one of the few Houston restauranteurs with staying power and the reason why is simple.  He delights in making his guests' experience special. Off the menu Steak tartare at eight o'clock on a Saturday night? While most will chefs shut that down with glee, Clark is happy to acquiesce... because he happens to enjoy a little tartare himself.

In 2001, he and Grant Cooper formed Clark Cooper Concepts and changed the game as far as wine sales go. These savvy businessmen made the unique decision to sell wine at a little above retail cost. Now, several restaurants have adopted the model and with great success.  After all, there's no better way to fill your restaurant than offering Veuve Clicquot at $48 bottle. Not only is it less expensive, but whole lot sexier than a trip to Costco in the minivan, or Land Rover for that matter.

You're likely to find Clark posting up at his busy Midtown restaurant Ibiza where he waves at familiar faces and even hops up to seat a guest or two. The Houston Press caught up with him after the lunch rush at a white tablecloth corner table where they enjoyed wine glasses of sparkling San Pellegrino...

HP: You spend the bulk of your time at Ibiza, don't you?

CC: I'm kind of known for that. I'm scheduled every shift. I mean, I take off now and then, but it's rare. I know everybody in here. (Waves to gentleman exiting the restaurant.) That guy, Tim McCloskey, he comes in every single lunch and has for the last seven or eight years. We save him a table. I love being here, until recently. I met a girl that I fell in love with.

HP: Really! What's her name?

CC: She's changed the whole way I think of things. We just got engaged in St. Barth on the beach. (Smiles) Keri Jo. Now I know why all these people are freaking out about being in love and stuff, I finally met the girl of my dreams. I'm not going to do [these hours] anymore. I am going to replace myself slowly at night and just do days.

HP: Good for you.

CC: (Grins) Oh my God.

HP: It's hard to make it work in this business...

CC: Oh, I know it is. The first couple of weeks [we were engaged] she goes, "I'm never going to see you." I told her, "I'm going to change that."

HP: So, when you've been working like a demon in the kitchen and haven't had time to be together, how do you make it up to her?

CC: Short trips. I go to St. Barth quite a bit. St. Barth is my favorite. The food is amazing. It's so clean.

HP: What's the flight like to get there?

CC: That's the thing, it's hard to get there, so it weeds out a lot of people. Ideally you would fly from here to San Juan and from there you would catch a shuttle to St. Barth. The food… you're on the beach…you have four-hour lunches. The shopping is amazing. You can drink a beautiful Provence rosé and then walk across the street and go to Hermès.

HP: Sounds dangerous.

CC: Oh yeah, it's crazy. New York. I go to New York a lot because I can work and play at the same time. She has a blast. I'll hit like five restaurants in one day, starting at noon. Small plates, boom, boom, boom. You know like Cipriani, places like that. So those are fun trips.

Austin. My favorite thing to do is go to Austin and get a suite at the St. Cecilia Hotel and just chill out. You ever been to St. Cecilia?

HP: I haven't.

CC: It is paradise. It feels like you're in the south of France.

HP: Really!

CC: Oh my God. Are you married?

HP: No.

CC: Oh. You gotta go.

HP: Okay!

CC: Take your boyfriend or whatever, you would love it, it's amazing. That's a good little trip to do because it's only two hours away. I used to go to New Orleans a lot but it's just so boring now. I don't like the long daiquiri glasses (uses hand to motion a long shape) and all the tourists. The quarter has become so commercialized now.

HP: Twenty years ago, people must have thought you were crazy for offering wine at the price you did, where did you get the idea?

CC: I remember seeing Silver Oak at $37 a bottle on the wine list of this old place in Kansas City, I can't remember the name of it. He didn't sell liquor so he got the wine at a cheaper price because he didn't have to pay that tax. It's the idea of doing volume and selling a lot of it. We sell so much Veuve Clicquot, we go through 14 cases a week, because we sell them at $48 dollars a bottle, and your next competitor is $80 a bottle.

HP: Costco sells it for more than you do.

CC: You know, a lady actually said something similar, "I was on my way to Specs to buy a bottle of Veuve and I thought why not sit on the patio with wine glasses and my friends and drink it there?" That's exactly why we did it like that.

HP: Clark Cooper restaurant concepts are all very creative, outside of this industry what do you like to create?

CC: What do I like to create? (Smiles) I like to create vacations for my daughters, because they're 14 and 16. I'm always trying to keep them from being bored (laughs). I also work on menus a lot.

It's funny with menus. You see the competition out there and you don't want to copy them, but you don't want to get left behind. But then again, I stick to my roots. I want to do classic French cuisine. No more than three ingredients on a plate. I like simple food. The freshest ingredients you can take, just don't fuck it up, you know what I mean?

A lot of young chefs think the more ingredients they use, the more creative they are. I think the more ingredients, the less creative. It's like a woman dressing up. A simple black dress with a clutch and pumps. Oh my God. You can't beat that. Same with food.

HP: What restaurants do you look to for inspiration?

CC: You know, I look at a few restaurants and it's not the ones you'd think. Carrabba's and Tony's. And not because of their chefs or their food. It's because they've been around for so long and made a lot of money. What is the secret of Johhny Carrabba's? You go there on a Saturday at 3 o'clock and it's packed. I would trade five little boutique restaurants for one Johnny Carrabba's. I try to capture that formula and it comes down to one thing. Kissing babies and shaking hands.

Mr. Vallone is always taking care of his customers, whatever they needed. He has the best parties for them, he'll create them a new dessert. He will make you bacon and eggs at 8 o'clock on Saturday night if that's what you want.

HP: Don't you kind of love waiting tables?

CC: Gah. I miss it. I miss that interaction. I was a waiter before I went to culinary school at 34 and it actually paid my way through. It's almost better to go to school at a later time in life because you take it more seriously. I wanted to be successful and vacation in St. Barths four times a year, you know (grins)?

HP: Tell me a story about your time in Spain…

CC: I had a little Citroen CV, they're like Volkswagen bugs. So, I bought it for like $500 and drove it all over Europe. It was a convertible but the mechanism didn't work, so I just ripped off the top. My last day in Madrid I drove it to the airport, parked and wrote a note that said, "whoever finds this car, the keys are in the ignition, it's yours, have fun."

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