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Under the Toque

James Clark, Marina Inn at Grande Dunes

When James Clark's high school buddy announced he was going to culinary school, Clark had no idea what that meant.

"I didn't realize you could even do that for a living," Clark said.

A native of Wilmington, he had spent his childhood in Elizabeth City, N.C., and Atlanta. He frequently spent holidays hunting, fishing and cooking the quarry on his friend's family farm. This teenage pursuit of fresh food would lead him to the executive chef's position at WaterScapes in the Marina Inn at Grande Dunes. By the time he was 22, Clark's experience working in restaurants had opened a new world to him and he left the South in search of more experience. As a student at the New England Culinary Institute, he made his greatest find - his bride to be, Marcy. Apprenticeships at New Orleans' Windsor Court Hotel and Atlanta's Ritz Carlton landed him a job after graduation from culinary school with Louis Osteen at the Charleston Place Hotel.

Through it all, he gained an exacting knowledge of the culinary arts.

"From those two internships, I took away a lot of discipline in cooking skills and freshness of food," he said. "And I took away the ability to use quality products properly - how to identify them - but most of all the discipline of consistency and proper cooking techniques."

Since then, Clark has worked as the buffet chief at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Michigan, serving 5,500 people a day, opened Vidalia's at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center hotel and cooked at Washington D.C.'s Palette restaurant in the Madison Hotel.

And he's always sought out the freshest food available in each location.At home, James treats fresh food with the same respect he would at work for the benefit of his daughters Madison, 7, and Paige, 21 months. Marcy, who holds her own degree in culinary arts, focuses on creating pastries during the family's frequent gatherings. In addition to being a chef, hunter, fisher, husband and father, James also writes. You can check out his blog at marinainnatgrandedunes.com.

Heidi Vukov, Croissants Bistro & Bakery

When Heidi Vukov opened Croissants in 1995, she only wanted to bake. As a child, she had spent every summer by her Grandmother's side in Germany learning the secrets of pastry making. But, at the last minute, the owner of Croissants decided to add a lunch menu on a whim. She needed to ensure that the business would be a success before opening the cafe that was on 27th Avenue North opposite the now defunct Myrtle Square Mall. Her instincts were good - lunch accounted for 90 percent of the business and kept her staff of eight employed during those first few years.

Through the years, Vukov's reputation as a baker extraordinaire grew and her cakes, cookies and treats generated as much business as her famous chicken salad and other lunch dishes did.

Today, Vukov is ready to take the next step. Faced with an empty nest now that the last of her four children has entered college, she's launching a bistro menu. The bistro menu includes short ribs, French roast chicken, scallops with linguine and a signature chicken dish featuring prosciutto and sundried tomatoes.

In keeping with Vukov's hands-on approach to the restaurant, she's currently redecorating the cafe so that it reflects the all-day operating schedule. Her degree in restaurant management from Widener University in Philadelphia has proved invaluable as she expanded her staff to 30 employees through the years.

Still, Vukov expects to continue turning her hand to the bakery now and again as the wedding cake orders demand her time. It's a tradition her German grandmother would approve of and a transaction her customers demand.

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