When childhood interests are nurtured, the impact experienced in the future is tremendous. Such is the journey of executive chef Everton Clarke of Cedar + Stone, Urban Table in JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America. Having worked at Marriott properties since graduating from the prestigious Johnson and Wales University and traveling the world with the renowned hospitality brand for more than two decades, Clarke is now at the helm of a culinary team consisting of 48 cooks and five chefs in the Mill City location.
An interest in cooking from a young age served Clarke well. Born in Jamaica and raised for a while in the United Kingdom, he grew up on land where “we grew our own spinach, rutabaga, turnips, beets, kale, and from that cooked dinner,” he shares. Clarke watched his mother prepare meals for the family and soon began doing a little improvising of his own. In high school, he chose culinary arts as an elective and excelled at it. In fact, his teacher recognized his talent and encouraged him to pursue it as a career.
Receiving a bachelor of science in food service management brought everything full circle. “All of those things I didn’t know that I was doing anyway – the ‘aha’ moment happened when the theoretical part and the science came together at school,” says Clarke. He landed a job with the international hospitality company and hasn’t looked back since. In the U.S., his work has taken him to places such as San Francisco and Palm Springs while his recent international stint included time in Dubai and Jordan.
The exposure to Middle Eastern kitchens and techniques were great learning grounds for Clarke. “I loved the idea of a specialized cook for every cuisine. There was an Indian cook for Indian food, Arab cook for Arab food, and so on. In the U.S., you have to be a jack-of-all-trades, or know a little bit of each culture even though you might not master it,” compares Clarke. “The products we were putting out in Dubai were authentic and well-crafted because the chefs grew up on the culture and cuisine.”
Learning to make hummus the Middle Eastern way was a revelation for Clarke. “You have to boil the chickpeas, soak it for a day before, nothing comes from a can. It is religious, and they follow it step by step. They are very passionate about their indigenous food, whereas in the U.S., we are passionate about our food, but some of the food doesn’t really belong to us. The tradition, the cuisine is not ours because we are a melting pot.”
The best learning from working in the Middle East came from witnessing so many different backgrounds and talents putting ideas on the table. “You have many different experiences being put forth. It is very rewarding,” says Clarke. Of course, he adapted that winning approach to his kitchen now. “I have a Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Turkish member – I tried to put a team together from different nationalities and backgrounds because I knew my banquet menu will reflect that.”
With Marriott, Clarke has an avenue to bring his creations to the crowds. New dishes introduced on the restaurant menu include venison loin, stuffed quail and bison potpie, which might be considered exotic to some palates but Minnesota is known for their wild life, and Clarke highlights these in his offerings. Clarke also notes the local culinary scene in Minnesota is comparable to neighboring Chicago.
“This city has lots of Asian, Ethiopian, Indian influences, so there is a great food scene. We have lots of great steakhouses since we are in cattle country. But we also have another twist – Midwest farmers who love to smoke and dry meats based on the Viking tradition because we also have a lot of Scandinavian, Dutch, Polish, Netherland, German influences.”
As part of the connect with local farmers, he is hosting a Farmers Dinner on August 10 where he is inviting 10-12 local farmers and using the products he buys from them to cook a meal that they will all enjoy together. “This is the first time we are doing this here, trying to make sure we give back to the community and the farmers for their blood, sweat and tears in bringing food to our table.”