Kelsey Barnard Clark is a small-town girl at heart, but she’s also a big-city chef who has made a national name for herself. After winning “Top Chef” in 2019 and a subsequent splashy feature in Food & Wine magazine, people now come from all over the country to eat at her KBC restaurant in historic downtown Dothan.
There, they find modern takes on Southern foods inspired by family recipes and a Gulf Coast upbringing and prepared with classic, French techniques.
That translates into steak frites (ribeye with chimichurri and truffle fries); wild-caught salmon with butterbean Hoppin’ John and cilantro lime vinaigrette; chicken fried with Frank’s hot sauce; wild mushroom flatbread; a burger with garlic aioli, blue and smoked gouda cheeses, mushrooms, caramelized and crispy onions and arugula; chicken and dumplings made with gnocchi; Creole shrimp and grits; homemade biscuits; and smoked crispy wings with Alabama white sauce.
The sandwiches – a pork belly BLT with homemade remoulade, the Bama with house pimento cheese and applewood-smoked bacon on panini, a traditional Cuban, a shrimp po boy and more – bring in a busy lunch crowd.
Barbecue has a place at lunch, brunch and supper.
“We’re really known for our brisket,” Clark says. “In fact, our barbecue program is part of the biggest thing that we’re doing with the expansion of the kitchen – to have a huge smoker and do more barbecue. I’m really proud of our brisket and our barbecue in general. Especially if you could see what we’re working with here, how we make it. It’s a tiny smoker that we’re working off of right now. And it’s truly the best brisket I’ve ever had. And I can say that confidently. It really is the best.” Diners can enjoy this brisket in a traditional ‘que sandwich with vinegar slaw or in the Burnt Ends Melt. You can get it in a bowl with roasted veggies and quinoa or as part of a meat and two (or three) Sunday Supper (available at each day’s lunch).
The food is important, of course, but the place matters, too.
Clark’s KBC enterprise – a restaurant, a bakery and a catering company – occupies three side-by-side downtown storefronts. When she first moved in, there wasn’t much else around. And, in fact, the roofs had collapsed on two of her three buildings on North Foster Street. Today, two lovely, intimate, brick-walled courtyards bookend a bustling restaurant space that features a bright, airy front room with a pastry case; an expansive, cozy dining room with framed family photos on textured walls and a handsome bar serving classic and modern craft cocktails; and an elegant private room for events. It’s a local party place, and most Friday and Saturday nights see large, festive gatherings in addition to individual diners. “Brunch is always slammed,” Clark says.
“It’s meant to be incredibly comfortable,” she says. “We’ve actually had people say, ‘This is not like the fancy food you cooked on ‘Top Chef.’’ That was the goal for me when I was designing this restaurant. I’d worked in fine dining only, and while I love that, and we do that with catering a lot, that is not the restaurant culture I wanted.”
What she envisioned was a place where “number one, people without training could work here and we could train them. And then, number two, anyone could eat here.
“So, you come on a date, and there’s a place in the restaurant where it seems nice and festive and all those things. You can come for a family function. You can come with your children. That really was meant to be the goal here … inclusive in every way, shape and form.”
People come from all over to experience this.
“We have hundreds of people coming through here every day. … We don’t know most of them these days,” Clark says. “I think the coolest thing about TV and just, you know, me getting out there more has been the people.
“One thing that’s neat about Dothan is that so many people pass through here to get to the beach. So, we get … tons of people from Atlanta, tons from the Carolinas, Virginia … I’m telling you, it’s crazy when we have people tell us where they’re coming from. We definitely have locals, which we love and we need – that’s our bread and butter – but we have a lot from all over the place now.”
And how these people feel when they dine here is perhaps the most important thing of all.
“I think the biggest compliment I ever hear is – I get this compliment a lot – it’s two things. It’s never about the food. … I’m telling you, this place is less about the food with me. We want the food to be good, don’t get me wrong; that’s expected though. It’s everything else. So, for me, it’s when people leave and say, ‘Your staff was so lovely. They seem so happy here.’ That’s a big one. And then we have people frequently say, ‘I just felt like I was in a different place when I got here. I didn’t want to leave.’” That’s what Clark loves to hear. “It’s like, it’s an escape for you. You can come here and relax and enjoy and not want to leave because … the environment is happy.
The food has to be good,” she adds. “It’s not about the food. … you’d never come to my restaurant and expect bad food. The food we’ve had down pat for a while. … Honestly, the food is the easiest part of the restaurant. It’s all the other things that we’re day-to-day working very hard at. It’s relationships, it’s communication, it’s counseling, sometimes therapy. That’s the real work with a restaurant, with owning one. It’s just constantly trying to make it better than it was yesterday. Food and everything, but just constantly evolving and making people feel at home.”
Clark’s food career actually started in middle school when she discovered a love for decorative cakes. She had her first solo catering gig – a wedding – at age 15.
“I had been selling cakes in middle school and high school for years, since I was about 13 years old,” she says. “And then someone who had bought my cake said, ‘Hey, look, I’m having a wedding.’ It was her second wedding … and they did not want a big fuss of a wedding, and she was like, ‘Would you do some food for us at a reception at the church?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And that’s kind of how it all started.
“I had to check out of school and had to be driven around to get everything, but I think that started my journey in the saying-yes-to-scary-things department.”
That journey included formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After that, she worked savory as well as pastry in several Michelin-star restaurants in New York City, including Café Boulud under Gavin Kaysen and Dovetail under John Fraser.
In 2012, Clark moved back home to open her catering company, Kelsey Barnard Catering. KBC – the restaurant – came a year later. The name is meaningful. When she was in high school, Clark worked for a high-end caterer named Larry Paul Williams; he was her mentor. She named her business in honor of his, which was Larry Paul’s Catering.
“The real, honest-to-God answer is: I came back because I was burnt out from New York,” she says. “I needed to come home. I needed to just take a breather.” She figured she would do some catering (in the style of Larry Paul, who had passed away while she was off at school), get a little money in her pocket and perhaps head to New Orleans.
With Larry Paul Williams, she had helped with in-home dining experiences that felt “as if you’re at a Michelin-star restaurant in New York,” she says. “I could do that in my sleep. … Number one, I have more catering experience than anything, and number two, I know how to do fine dining. … So, even before I moved home, I had a calendar booked for months with catering.
“For me, there was just this moment of, ‘Why do I keep telling myself I don’t want to live here when this place is so supportive and eager for me to be here?’ And I think the other thing was: Where can I leave the biggest footprint and change? Where can I make the biggest difference? New York? No. I’m just another person there doing this. New Orleans? Pretty much the same thing. But in a small town like this with a dead downtown that was literally just falling apart and truly no restaurant scene. So, I just decided, okay, maybe I need to invest here financially and personally, which is sort of where I landed.”
Since then, she’s been actively involved in the revitalization of downtown Dothan.
“I would say that my biggest contribution is my commitment to staying here, because there have been a lot of days where I’m like, ‘Forget this. Let’s just move into a new building. Let’s just start over.’ But for me, it’s more important … I’m a big lover of old things. I think that’s pretty clear at this point. And I really believe in making things better than the way you got them, rather than starting over sometimes. And I think that that’s very true to form here. We’ve put in a lot – a lot – onto this street and into these buildings. And I think that we’ve had a lot of (other) businesses open because we’ve stayed open and across the street has stayed open.”
These days, Clark employs around 75 people – more during the spring wedding season and during the summer.
“I’m very proud of our staff, I think overall, more than anything,” she says “If you go into KBC, you’ll see all different ages, all different backgrounds, which is what I’m proud of. … We are not perfect – that does not exist. But I like walking in and seeing culture in the restaurant – whether it’s from the customers or the employees – which I think is really cool. You see people from all different backgrounds eating here and working here. I love to see that everyone feels welcome. Because that’s my goal.”
Clark was the fifth woman and the first Southerner to win the title of Top Chef; she did so with a four-course, Southern-inspired meal that incorporated classic cooking techniques and Macanese ingredients. Clark also was voted Fan Favorite following her win in Season 16. That experience is still working in her favor.
She published a cookbook, “Southern Grit: 100+ Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Cook” in 2021. She’s working on a follow-up book that focuses on entertaining. She teaches virtual cooking classes (they helped keep her business afloat during the worst of the pandemic), and she frequently takes her chef talents on the road to cooking events all over the country. She’s currently working on a new television program, and she and her husband have two small children.
But making her corner of the world better is still a priority.
Her KBC business, she says, has been a “big leap of faith. … When we first did this, I really felt strongly that this is where I was supposed to be. From, honestly, the moment I moved (back) to Dothan, I felt like downtown was where I should be.
“I think, specifically, in this world we’re in today and especially with this instant culture that we have of everything happening immediately and everything not taking time, I think it’s really important to do things like this. I think that if we just start over constantly and throw things away constantly and want instant results constantly, then we’re always going to get instant results, right?” Those don’t tend to last as long, she points out. “For me, the reward has been so much greater because I know how long it took to get here. And I know the blood, sweat, tears – the money – that it takes to do this. And so, for me, I think that that makes everyone work harder. It makes me work harder. There’s a sense of responsibility because I don’t own this. Someone here before me worked harder than me. So, I think, any time you can pay it back, that is the goal.”
151 North Foster Street
Dothan, Alabama 36303
Follow her on Instagram @kelseybarnardclark
Lunch: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Supper: Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Friday and Saturday by reservations only)
Brunch: Saturday 10 a.m. ‘til they run out.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)