the hand that feeds you

Mike Clark

By Lucas Dunn / Photography By Todd Scott | April 25, 2016
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The late afternoon light of a cloudless day pours into the dining room. Tall floor-to-ceiling windows line the space, and the gilded fixtures and white interior seem reflective, creating a natural luminescence. Every corner of the restaurant is remarkably clean and the long marble bar top that acts as a centerpiece glistens. A faint odor of the sea murmurs throughout the air, recalling a tangle of memories: The Gulf Coast, Cape Cod, Pike Place Market…

“My parents were big into doing crawfish and shrimp boils, soft shells crabs, really a lot of Cajun cuisine. That started piquing the interest in seafood,” says sous chef Mike Clark. “I knew that I liked it from then, and I can remember eating shrimp and crawfish since I was kneehigh to a grasshopper. It’s always been a big part of our family.”

Mike’s gentle, Texas drawl is comforting in its familiarity. He’s the type of chef who stays calm and focused during an intense dinner rush. It’s the kind of personality that is a perfect fit for Oklahoma City’s most detail-oriented seafood restaurant, The Drake. The food he creates is refined yet unpretentious, comforting but healthful. It’s the rare kind of restaurant that transports the guest to another place upon first entering the spotless glass double-doors.

Even the view from our corner table seems to have dropped us in a bigger city. Outside the window, metro buses hurry past, pedestrians mosey about on the sidewalks, and hunched-over cyclists pedal away. The scene outside is urban and fast-paced, a stark contrast to the timeless ambiance inside The Drake, where the world slows down as you savor a platter of oysters on crushed ice and a carefully made cocktail. Each slurp of a Kumamoto or bite of crudo takes you to a different locale. It’s hard to believe you are still in Oklahoma City when it’s time to settle the tab and go home.

“We have I-35 and I-40 coming through here, so we’ve got a lot of people with a lot of culture, coming from both east and west coast, north and south that can bring stuff here,” Mike explains.

Not only do people come here and bring their culture and cuisine, but the fish must travel here as well. Oklahoma is almost as far as can be from a coast, so with the exception of catfish, there’s not much native seafood. Most Okies were raised with fish sticks being the closest semblance to eating what comes out of the water. The Drake receives fresh shipments every day from around the world. Some of it, like the lobsters, oysters, and clams, are still alive and breathing when they arrive.

Mike has done his own share of journeying throughout his young 29 years. “I remember traveling with my dad. When he was real young, he lived in eastern North Carolina and we would go fish on the Pamlico Sound. They have a lot of big fish out there—tarpon, some sharks as well.”

As well as North Carolina and his parents’ home of New Orleans, which has its own rich connection with seafood, Mike spent two summers in Alaska when he was 20 and 21. He worked on a river ferry on the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers.

“It’s a water-powered fairy that runs on cables. There’s only one more in the world like it. Other than working on the boat, I did a lot of fishing—a whole lot of fishing. I really got up on fly-fishing. I wasn’t cooking there, that was in between being in school and being done with school. It was definitely something everyone should experience one in their life, and I just had an opportunity when I was young.”

That area is the second-largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, which is impressive enough, but also home to large numbers of halibut, arctic char, rainbow trout, and many other delicious and beautiful aquatic animals. Humans are not the only creatures that know this, however.

“There were a lot of encounters with brown bears up there. We got quite a bit of grizzly interaction, which that in itself can be crazy because they were within 50 feet. They were real close, those big brown bears. That’s when you just let go [of your fish] and run, because you do not want to be tracked down by one of those,” Mike laughs.

But finfish and grizzlies were not the only animals he became acquainted with. Shellfish are also abundant in Alaska.

“Clamming was a lot of fun, and I didn’t think it was going to be. They give you these goofy shovels. You gotta track the tides and see when there’s gonna be a real low tide, and that’s when you go out in the day and do ‘em. We probably took like 10 guys with us, and we all caught our limit of 70 razor clams. We’d throw ‘em in a cooler, and it takes you back to being a kid. You’re out there digging in the sand with your fingers, and you’d catch ‘em and wiggle ‘em out.”

Mike had not yet developed the culinary chops that he uses daily as a chef, but still took advantage of cooking those fresh bivalves. “We had a propane burner out there with a big ol’ pot, so we made a gigantic batch of clam chowder. We sautéed them, we fried ‘em, we made them into clam fritters, we just ate them any way you could. Back then, I didn’t have a ton of experience doing a lot of seafood. That was 8 years ago. I didn’t have the background that I have now. One of my buddies that I worked with out there was in town just this past weekend, and I was telling him, ‘If I had known what I know now, I would have done things a lot differently.’”

These kinds of first-hand experiences with seafood are unforgettable, and irreplaceable as a chef. Like visiting a farm to see how the vegetables are grown or the cattle are raised, being out in the water and seeing the environment, breathing the cold and salty air, getting muddy sand underneath his fingernails has imbued Mike with a respect for his ingredients. It is this kind of passion for quality and insistence on sustainability that The Drake possesses, and wishes to pass on to its guests.

“If people are still feeling leery about eating seafood in Oklahoma, break out of that shell and give us a shot here. We’re getting a lot of fresh fish, it’s all sustainably sourced. If you look at some of the bigger, wellknown chefs around the country or around the world, they talk about it with a passion. It’s something that as chefs, we need to champion in our restaurants when we can, because that’s going to be the first step. If you understand that the dishes that you’re eating in our restaurant are sustainably sourced, you’re more apt to try it at home.”

Article from Edible OKC at http://edibleoklahomacity.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/mike-clark
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