Smaller is better
What got Clark started growing high quality food in the firsxt place and what is at the core of his motivation now is a drive for excellence beyond what is expected, for doing something well and producing food that has been tended to with passion and commitment from seed to serving.
It’s no coincidence that the chefs who seek out Clark’s product are as passionate about preparing and presenting it as Clark is about producing it. And the symbiotic relationship between Clark and his restaurateur customers is mutually inductive. Clark listens to chefs who tell him what they want and the produce Clark brings them continually inspires the chefs.
“There were restaurants looking for special things they couldn’t get,” Clark said. “When Craig [Hartman, chef/owner at Barbeque Exchange] was at the Clifton Inn, he wanted that small elegant look from the greens. He kept saying, ‘Smaller, smaller.’ One day, in frustration, I cut the seedlings and brought them to him and he said, ‘That’s it!’”
Palladio chef Melissa Close-Hart, who worked at the Clifton Inn with Hartman, wrote in an e-mail, “[Clark] has told me before that he credits me and Craig for introducing him to the nano-sized greens. For every one of those tiny little celery leaves that I garnish the risotto with, a single seed was used. He must go through thousands and thousands of seeds just for me here at Palladio. I am sure that he may curse us for that occasionally. I love these tiny garnishes. They look very elegant and have a very intense, concentrated flavor.”
Frustrating or not, the nano, micro, and baby greens are now Clark’s signature products.
As he walked me and another visitor through the five greenhouses at PED, Clark was constantly scooping up soil and feeling it, and picking leaves from plants, or miniature citrus fruit from little trees and handing them over for us to sample. All the flavors were exaggerated and had almost nothing in common with their chain supermarket counterparts—not the colors, not the flavor, not the feel.
“Maybe local hero is too big a word, but Mike is definitely the local genius,” said Angelo Vangelopoulos, chef at the Ivy Inn. “He’s the hardest working farmer I know. Cream of the crop. We’re lucky to have him. His produce is always a great source of ideas for me, what he’s excited about, and from there it influences the menu.”
Clark said, “In the local food community, you’ve got all these people willing to work harder and get paid less, maybe even lose money, because they have a passion, because their work is their art.”
Clark confesses that his desire to do things especially well is embedded in his DNA. And he is such a singular personality that it’s hard to imagine him being influenced or inspired by mere mortals. But he has been. He cites Alice Waters, the California restaurateur considered by many to have been on the leading edge of the trend of the local food chain from farm to front of house, as inspiration.
“She wasn’t saying to someone, ‘I need potatoes at this price.’ She would say, ‘What do you have that’s good?’ She would take what was available and do something wonderful with it,” Clark said.
And then, yet again, Clark came from left field with another piece of the complex puzzle that he is. In the late ’80s, Clark came across Tom Peters, co-author of the bestseller In Search of Excellence, and a motivational speaker.
“He talked about people who went beyond what was required and created special relationships with their clients,” Clark said of Peters’ message. “There was one story about a package that couldn’t get delivered because of a snowstorm, and one guy at FedEx hired a helicopter to get the package to the guy. It was huge loss but it got the package there on time and created a forever customer.”
Inspired by the philosophy behind that level of commitment, Clark has tried to run his business with that same tenacity. He had been building one of those special relationships with the owners of The Inn at Little Washington.
“We were almost exclusively the growers for them. We would take sorrel to them in the middle of the night if they called. We would lose money doing that but we were trying to build one of those relationships.”
But then the ownership structure at Little Washington changed and their new accounting people started looking for ways to cut costs. Cutting out PED was one of the ways they chose. And the relationship that Michael had spent years building and nurturing was gone.