Customers in the elegant dining room of Crossroads at The Carolina Inn may not have noticed anything out of the ordinary lately. But Chef James Clark isn’t running the kitchen of the landmark dining institution in Chapel Hill these days.

In late June, Clark ended his nearly four-year tenure as executive chef. That same day he announced that he would leave to open his own eatery, Postal Fish Company, in Pittsboro in 2017. (Tentative plans are to refurbish the vacant post office off Hillsboro Street.) Executive sous chef Bill Hartley, who started working with Clark nine years ago in Myrtle Beach and followed him to the Carolina Inn, also left the same day.

The Postal Fish Company team recently launched a Kickstarter project to fund architectural renderings of their hoped-for 3,500-square-foot location.

Through a statement issued by the Inn’s publicist, general manager Mark Sherburne said an “extensive national search” is underway to replace Clark. In the short term, the kitchen is using staffing resources from Destination Hotels to ensure that diners continue to enjoy “welcoming Southern hospitality and culinary excellence.”

While stating they left on good terms, Clark delayed talking about the new endeavor until details of their exit from The Carolina Inn were finalized.

“Bill and I have been talking about opening our own place for three years,” he says. Wishful thinking turned into serious planning last year over campfire chats on hunting trips.

Clark says he and Hartley will take turns making trips to the coast each week to buy direct from fishermen. “We’re going to do our best to cut out the middlemen,” he says. “We know we can increase our margins to pick it ourselves, and to buy it whole. We use fish from gill to tail. That’s our thing.”

Some people doubted that Clark’s sustainable approach would appeal to the upscale audience that has long been the Inn’s core clientele. But he revitalized Crossroads with a bold menu that emphasized sustainable, under-utilized fish (a story we dug deeper into in 2013). Serving less glamorous species like jolthead porgy and scorpionfish led to a sixty percent increase in fish sales.

“Training your serving staff well is key to this kind of change,” Clark says. “Once people understand what we’re doing, they’re really supportive.”

Clark is well regarded by Triangle chefs, including those who operate in direct competition for the business of seafood lovers.

“James is a good man. He loves talking shop about local seafood,” says Ricky Moore of Durham’s Saltbox Seafood Joint, a friend with whom Clark consulted about his plans to open a fish house. “He has everything required to be successful in Pittsboro, without a doubt. He’s a good dude, a real professional and a damn good cook.”

There is at least one other well-known local chef expected to be involved in Postal Fish Company. “Yes, I think we have a pastry chef on board,” Clark says with a chuckle, referring to his wife, Marcey Clark, who he met when both were enrolled at New England Culinary Institute. She formerly ran the dessert program at Chapel Hill’s Elements. “She’ll definitely be part of the family business.”