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"Chef Ricky Moore brings his high-end skills to Saltbox Seafood Joint"

Published 05/07/16
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Chef Ricky Moore has cooked in large restaurants from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and fed hundreds at a time as a cook in the Army. He could be doing just about anything just about anywhere. So why open a walk-up seafood shack in downtown Durham?

“It started with my wife asking where to get a good fish sandwich. Her grandfather was a fisherman in northern Virginia and they ate fish all the time. Stewed fish for breakfast or these oyster pancakes made from dipping oysters right in the pancake batter,” Moore says, the way he describes them making them sound luscious. “I saw that building in Durham and said that looks like a fish joint, a good location for a place to offer a good fish sandwich.”

Today, Saltbox Seafood Joint draws lines at the window, not just for a good fish sandwich, but for seafood and sides where Moore puts his training at the Culinary Institute of America in service to fresh daily, North Carolina-caught seafood.

Moore’s cooking has received notice in national magazines, such as Travel+Leisure and Saveur. In 2015, he was invited to cook at the Southern Foodways Aliance’s annual symposium in Oxford, Miss. Last year, SFA’s executive director and acclaimed writer John T. Edge wrote about Moore’s fried oysters for Garden & Gun magazine in an article, “Southern Food in 50 Dishes.”

Edge wrote: Moore “has staked out a coastal fish camp on the fringe of downtown Durham. He succeeds, sourcing his oysters from Swan Quarter, North Carolina, frying the little jewels in impeccably clean grease, and seasoning them with salt, lemon zest, and not much more. This is minimalist cooking perfected, a melding of art and craft worthy of Bauhaus.”
Influences from near and far

Moore, 47, was an Army kid and moved around, but he spent a lot of time with family in New Bern, so he knew about seafood, too. He opened Saltbox Seafood Joint in the 205-square-foot building in 2012 with a fryer and grill and himself as the only employee. It’s takeout only. He gets fish from the North Carolina coast each morning and stays open until he sells out, which often happens before the advertised closing time.

Some fish on his daily board might be unfamiliar to diners who are stuck in the flounder-snapper-grouper mindset. Sometimes he even serves fish – heaven forbid – whole.

“Gray trout, amberjack, dogfish are great fish. I’m interested in the other species. Now people will ask me ‘what does this taste like?’ and try it. I’ve built up trust with my customers,” Moore says. “People do have problems with whole fish. But butterfish, croaker, these taste great. The bones give the fish flavor like a bone in a chicken thigh gives flavor to the chicken.”

That’s Ricky Moore, evangelist for bone-in fish and neglected finny species.

Also Ricky Moore, out of the box. The chef made a seafood-less seafood chowder for the recent Bull City Vegan Challenge. He used smoked oyster (ha, ha) mushrooms to mimic bacon, plus sweet potatoes, peas, cashews and an emulsified vegetable stock to simulate a creamy base.

And Ricky Moore, no pretension. “People don’t see how I can be a chef, because I don’t have a single tattoo.”

After graduating from high school in New Bern, he had a scholarship to study art at East Carolina University. However, Moore felt he wasn’t mature enough for college at that point and joining the military was a natural idea, since his father was a 20-year veteran. He spent nine years in the service, most of it cooking in field kitchens for soldiers and making special dinners for the brass.

“The military kitchen has been a huge influence on me,” Moore says. “The ability to feed so many people at once and make it wholesome, good food. And Army cooking isn’t the stereotype. Food is a morale booster. Those guys look forward to it and if they don’t like it, they will tell you.”

Also, the time in the Army enabled him to eat all over the world including Hawaii, Louisiana, Korea and Germany. In Singapore, he ate chili-spiced whole crab that he can still describe in detail.

When he decided to leave the military, an adviser suggested he attend the Culinary Institute of America and become a chef. Interestingly, Moore points out, the Institute originated in 1946 in part to train veterans returning from World War II. (True.) And, Moore adds, the 19th-century French chef Auguste Escoffier had been an army man and based his principles of kitchen organization, which many chefs still use today, on military structure. (Also true.) “I could connect. It made so much sense,” Moore says.

After graduating from the Institute in 1994, Moore moved around, cooking at fine-dining restaurants in Chicago and Washington, D.C., where he supervised staffs of 20 or more. In 2007, Moore competed on The Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” in a Thanksgiving battle against Michael Symon. (He lost.)

Moore and his wife wanted to raise their two children “in a place where we can create a family-centric lifestyle,” he says, so he returned to North Carolina, landing at Glasshalffull in Carrboro in 2008 and Giorgio in Cary in 2010. He and his family live in Chapel Hill.

Moore also began to blend his knowledge and international experiences with the good country cooking he ate growing up in New Bern and clearly remembers.

There was the 87-year-old neighbor he used to visit after school. Moore would enjoy a bowl of whatever was cooking on the man’s potbelly stove and listen to stories. “There was his grandmother who was head of a public school cafeteria, back when lunch ladies really knew how to cook. She baked homemade yeast rolls every day. She used to pack sausage in a jar with pork fat – a fact he recalled when he learned about confit in culinary school.
What’s next

When Moore started thinking about opening his own place, he knew he didn’t want to be a supervisor in a large restaurant or be beholden to investors. “I’d go out in the restaurant and talk to VIPs but I still had to put on a persona,” Moore says. “Now, you see me working, I’m in there. I’m present. I’m doing everything. ... I’m ready to be my own boss.”

At Saltbox, he has two employees who prep for the sides, take orders through the window and clean the area around the building. Moore selects the fish from suppliers and does all the cooking.

A typical day begins the night before with Moore checking with Locals Seafood, Salty Catch, Nixon’s Fishery and other North Carolina suppliers to see what they expect to haul in the next day. The suppliers confirm the next morning, and they deliver around 9:30 a.m. while Moore is preparing the side items – such things as slaw with lemon dressing; sauteed potatoes, onions and bell peppers; and “hush honeys,” hush puppies with honey. Saltbox has no freezer; nothing is stored.

In March, the executive chef of Piedmont in Durham, Greg Gettles, shared his kitchen with Moore for the restaurant’s first Seasons of the Sea dinners, which highlight North Carolina seafood.

“Ricky is one of the most solid chefs I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Gettles says. “His food is clean and the technique is flawless. You can tell that every time he’s on the stove or on a cutting board his passion for the craft is genuine and heartfelt. I feel that whatever he plans for the future will be done with absolute integrity and finesse.”

Now that he’s got this down, Moore is thinking about what comes next. He’s talking with a company about bottling his homemade tartar and cocktail sauces. Maybe more Saltbox Seafoods in other towns, if he can figure out how to do that while keeping the quality up. “Saltbox, to me, can be like the Shake Shack of fish, chef crafted, if I can scale the brand,” he says.

He already has the perfect Twitter handle: @chefpreneur.

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