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Blackberry Muffin | © Mise En Place
Blackberry Muffin | © Mise En Place
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Watch Out For Inimitable Chef, Joe Clarke

Picture of Maxence Effantin
Updated: 24 November 2016
Joe Clarke is the Chef and Founder of AGR (American Grocery) in Greenville, SC, a fine dining restaurant with an unique cooking style. The restaurant boasts a menu which combines exotic flavors with traditional French culinary techniques. The chef tells The Culture Trip how his passion for cuisine is rooted in a childhood of familial cooking.
When and why did you first start cooking?
I started cooking when I was very young, things like cookies with my mom. I remember one time I attempted to make sugar cookies unsupervised after school and instead of putting a teaspoon of salt in the dough, I put a cup! Needless to say, the dough went in the trash immediately. I don’t think I told my mom right away. I continued in college influenced by friends who would cook, and then by getting a job washing dishes and eventually learning to cook in that kitchen. My grandmothers and my mother were always preparing huge meals all the time, a trait I have picked up. If a meal was worth doing, it was worth doing big! It just comes very naturally to me.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I would say American Seasonal with a French technique, obviously influenced by southern flavors and ingredients, but also utilizing ethnic flavors, sometimes subtly enough to enhance but not overpower.
You were raised in South Carolina but lived and trained in Los Angeles for 12 years. How did each of these places shape your style?
Growing up in South Carolina, I was really affected by my grandmother’s farm and her ability to utilize everything. Also, the freshness of the produce that was on the table at every meal, it really changes the way you look at a tomato. LA was the same, but different: the farm-to-table movement out there was clearly in full swing thanks to Alice Waters and others. Working in California seasonal restaurants was very influential in showing me how to utilize those fresh ingredients and allow them to shine.
Is there a specific dish you can recall from your childhood which has influenced you?
Not a dish so much as my Grandmother’s pickles. I remember the way the house used to smell when she would put up a big batch. I don’t even know if I can fully replicate her recipe, although I’m sure some of it is nostalgia.
Blackberry Muffin | © American Grocery
Do you have a signature dish from your menu that you are particularly proud of? 
Braised beef tongue with charred-onion spaetzle, smoked paprika cream, pickled mustard seeds and arugula. I developed this dish to feature a lesser used cut of beef that is beautiful and unctuous (everybody and their grandma does steak in this town). It took me a while to convince some of my guests to try it, but I refused to take it off the menu. Once people tried it, they were blown away by the flavor and balance of the dish. The sauce contains a smoked paprika purée, not the dry powder, that gives it that extra sweet smoky brightness that really balances the richness of the tongue. The mustard seeds and the arugula give it a spicy pop on the palate. I love this dish so much it’s hard to change it, so we feature it as a signature. I really think people would go crazy if I took it off.
Your ethos is strongly pointed towards local purveyors. Where do you buy your produce? Is there a particular go-to place in South Carolina?
When we opened in 2007, no one was using local produce or ingredients in Greenville, the farmer’s market did not even exist. We literally had to go and knock on farmers’ doors and convince them to sell to us. We were fortunate to develop some relationships at that time with many great people, some we still use today! Now, there are almost too many people growing (not that it’s a bad thing). I just worry if some of these folks have a market.
Have you and your wife always wanted to run a restaurant? Is it what you envisaged spending your life doing?
Yes, we both have always been in or around the service industry. When we lived in California, Darlene worked in great restaurants and we would always discuss the desire to one day have our own place. It was always a discussion and always a dream, and we knew one day we would move back to SC and open our own place. More importantly, it’s what we love and still to this day is a central focus in our daily lives. I still cook at home almost every day and prepare meals for us when we are off. I’ll often experiment with new menu items at home. Great food and wine is life!
As a chef, what’s the most bizarre culinary request you’ve ever received?
This was not a request but a question for me and the server. A lady was inquiring about the beef tongue dish and wanted to know if a cow could lick its own butt. If so, she was not going to have the tongue.
Charcuterie | © American Grocery

Charcuterie | © American Grocery

Do you consider a country’s cuisine when you select your travel destinations? If you could take a culinary tour across one country in the world, where would you go?

Of course we consider it, but it’s not the deciding factor mainly based on the fact that I feel that wherever we travel there will interesting food to discover. We really want to go to Morocco, Argentina and Japan.

Henry Miller penned 11 work schedule commandments in his book, Henry Miller on Writing. Number 7 is ‘Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.’ Do you adhere to a particular morning routine or way of working which helps you to be productive?

I get into my kitchen early in the morning before any staff. It’s some of my favorite times in the kitchen to think and get things done without distraction.