“The key to a craveable dish is familiarity and a connection” With Vicky Colas & Chef Ricky Moore

The key to a craveable dish is familiarity and a connection, creating something that people can identify with based on past experiences and regionality. And from a craftsmanship standpoint it requires seasonality, quality ingredients and applying technique(s) in the cooking process to enhance, fortify and magnify flavor.A craveable dish also requires simplicity — essentially taking […]

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The key to a craveable dish is familiarity and a connection, creating something that people can identify with based on past experiences and regionality. And from a craftsmanship standpoint it requires seasonality, quality ingredients and applying technique(s) in the cooking process to enhance, fortify and magnify flavor.

A craveable dish also requires simplicity — essentially taking a common dish that people already know and can identify with and then remixing it with amplified flavors and textures.

As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational Black Chefs & Restaurateurs, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ricky Moore.

Chef Ricky Moore — the self-professed evangelist of North Carolina seafood — is the owner of the popular Saltbox Seafood Joint® restaurants in Durham, North Carolina — praised by Saveur as “a tiny but mighty seafood shack.” Taking inspiration from the famous wet markets in Singapore, Moore focuses purely on the food inspired by his native Carolina coast, and its traditional roadside fish shacks and camps.

Moore opened Saltbox Seafood Joint® in Durham, NC in 2012 and a second location, also in Durham, in 2017. Accolades in Garden & Gun, Our State and Travel + Leisure followed, and in 2019, Moore debuted the Saltbox Seafood Joint® Cookbook — with 60 recipes celebrating his coastal culinary heritage. In 2020, as one of the region’s most admired chefs, Moore received a nomination from the James Beard Foundation for “Best Chef” in the Southeast and Discover awarded Saltbox Seafood Joint® $25,000 as part of its #EatItForward campaign for black-owned restaurateurs. In 2007, during his tenure as Executive Chef at Agraia in Washington DC (now known as Founding Farmers), Moore’s reputation earned him a spot competing against Chef Michael Symon on “Iron Chef America.” Today Moore continues to fulfill his lifelong dream as an entrepreneur, professional, and preserver of North Carolina fisherman and foodways.

Ricky Moore was born and raised in the North Carolina coastal town of New Bern, where catching and eating fresh fish and shellfish is a way of life. He draws inspiration from his Eastern North Carolina culinary background, as well as from culinary experiences across the globe. Moore was introduced to German cooking at a young age as a “Military Brat,” growing up in Germany, and from his German Mother-in-law, and he served as a cook in the US Army for a decade before attending and graduating from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America. Kitchen stints from some of the world’s most prestigious kitchens across the globe followed — including Le Tarbouche, IndeBleu, Vidalia, Lespinasse, Equinox, Agraria (now called Founding Farmers) in Washington, DC, and Frontera Grill, Charlie Trotter’s, and Tru in Chicago. Moore also served as Executive chef and Instructor at the Parrot Cage Restaurant in the Washburne Culinary Institute, and Executive Chef of South Water Kitchen. Moore’s tenure at two-star Michelin-rated Apicius in Paris with Jean-Pierre Vigato, Le Cerf in Alsace with Michel Husser, and Le Violin d’Ingres in Paris with Christian Constant, Daniel in New York City, and Cuisine of India in Toronto with Shishir Sharma, further polished his culinary technique, perspective and ambition to own restaurants of his own.

Hear from the “bonefish evangelist” on Black Public Media’s “Hook,” which featured Ricky Moore in 2019. https://www.saltboxseafoodjoint.com/media

Images & Assets:

Follow Chef Ricky Moore and Saltbox Seafood Joint® on Instagram and Facebook @SaltboxSeafoodJoint, on Twitter @SaltboxSeafood, and www.SaltboxSeafoodJoint.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Becoming a chef and restaurateur wasn’t my immediate goal, but I always knew that I wanted to do something that felt natural, where I could use my hands, and that had a creative component.

Growing up I had some indirect influences that helped develop my love and curiosity about food, starting with pulling potatoes in the garden to working part-time during high school at the Piggly Wiggly, a neighborhood grocery. Farmers would come into the store daily and this helped connect the dots for me, realizing that I understood the concept of where food comes from and seasonality. After graduating from the military academy I decided to become a military cook. That was when it really became a profession for me. It simultaneously felt natural and creative, and that’s when I first saw myself becoming a professional in the hospitality industry.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I focus on food inspired by the North Carolina coast and its traditional roadside fish shacks and camps. Seafood has always been important to me. Growing up in New Bern, a small town on the North Carolina coast, seafood was a big part of our weekly diet. And once I decided to hone in on seasonal North Carolina seafood for my restaurant, all my memories came back. We ate a lot of whole bonefish like croaker, spot, or butterfish, often fried whole and served with cornbread, typically on Friday. And most of what we ate, we caught, scaled and gutted ourselves. And let me tell you, you had to do it correctly! It was a rite of passage to understand how to clean the fish and navigate the bones. If you choked on a bone, kids were given bread to cough it up or push it down. Once you got through that, you could keep eating bonefish — always butterflied open and scored, so you could navigate the bones.

North Carolina is not nearly as recognized for its seafood as it should be. Throughout my travels, both domestic and international, I have visited many coastal areas that are recognized for seafood and specific dishes but North Carolina doesn’t really have that. With Saltbox Seafood Joint, I want to be a vehicle for starting the conversation about what North Carolina brings to the world of seafood.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have a few….

“Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” — Coach Lombardy

We are currently living through a very tough time and to survive we have to deal with it. I’ve experienced a lot of turmoil, both personal and professional, but I always had people around me who kept me encouraged. You have to figure out how to manage even when it seems impossible.

“Simplicity is complexity resolved.” — Constantine Brancusi

As a creative person from an artistic standpoint it’s easy to get overwhelmed trying to deliver something we believe is meaningful. But at the end of the day, the dishes that are remembered are the simple, straight forward, kind, and caring ones.

“What gets measured, gets managed.” — Peter Drucker

I’m a big fan of Peter Drucker. He was a super badass marketing dude back in the day. From a business standpoint, we’ve got to figure out how to manage the business instead of the business managing us. And measuring means setting goals, putting challenges in front of us, and having something to reach toward. That’s the only way to know where you’re going.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

There is always a bit of gentle hazing one must undergo in kitchens and it’s different in every one. When I was working in an Italian restaurant we all wore clogs and we had a locker room where we’d get dressed. And each day my shoes started to not fit correctly. I would see the other cooks laughing and giggling but wasn’t sure why. By the 13th day, I realized they were putting aluminium foil in the toe of my shoes everyday and as a result each day my shoes fit worse and worse. It was a gentle hazing. Then we did it to the next guy.

In the military, people want to know if you can really cook. So we got tested a lot. Some viewed it as trauma. I viewed it as needing to step up my game! As a new cook coming into the unit, you’d come in as a private, and have extra errands and chores. They send you out to do all sorts of weird chores like finding a “pan stretcher,” which of course, doesn’t exist. I’d scramble and go crazy and have to admit I couldn’t find it, and they’d all laugh.

This sort of gentle hazing ultimately is really just a rite of passage to see what you’re made of, what your character is and if you can think on your feet. And ultimately whether you will be a good member of the team.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I had a hard time trying to figure out if this was the right career for me. Particularly regarding the amount of hours and time it took to learn the craft properly. I would see everyone else out busy having fun while I was in the kitchen. I overcame my doubts by working hard and putting myself around people who inspired me. Role models were hard to find. By that, I mean, people who looked like me, I was often the only black person in a kitchen. So I did feel lonely at times but I knew I could do it!

I come from a family of hard workers. It wasn’t just about being successful, but rather about giving it your all. Growing up, I did a lot of farm work in tobacco fields, bailing hay, pulling potatoes, so I knew how to work hard. Ultimately I overcame my doubts by learning to enjoy the hard work. And because of that I never had to look for a job, I was always recommended.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The key to a craveable dish is familiarity and a connection, creating something that people can identify with based on past experiences and regionality. And from a craftsmanship standpoint it requires seasonality, quality ingredients and applying technique(s) in the cooking process to enhance, fortify and magnify flavor.

Cooking a craveable fish dish specifically takes into account many steps that are invisible to the customer including the way the fish was butchered, the quality of the oil it is cooked in, and seasoning at every step of the cooking process to build layers of flavor.

A craveable dish also requires simplicity — essentially taking a common dish that people already know and can identify with and then remixing it with amplified flavors and textures.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

I never want to achieve a perfect meal — what would I do then?? I always want to achieve excellence and sometimes I will hit perfection. But my goal is excellence over the long haul.

In terms of the perfect meal that I would like to eat? That’s a meal that is ultra simple, ultra seasonal, and cooked with a “sure hand,” meaning with lots of care and reverence by someone who put their soul into it.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I am currently working on rolling out a product line of condiments under the Saltbox Seafood Joint brand — our cocktail sauce, tartar sauce and mustard sauce. This will allow us to take the brand outside of our current market for people who have been to Salt Box or have moved away (and miss our food) as well as introduce our brand to a new audience.

And my grand scheme is to get my Hush Honey’s into the freezer section of every grocery store in America! The Hush HoneyⓇ is a cross between a North Carolina hush puppy and an Italian zeppole. You can find the recipe in my cookbook, the Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook and they were also spotlighted in The Local Palate.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

First and foremost, find time for yourself and make yourself a priority. And don’t get caught up with the traditional culture of late nights and substance abuse that is common in this industry. It’s not the business that burns you out, it’s the overindulgence which burns you out.

Also, it’s really important to check your goals and be clear with yourself as to why you are in this industry in the first place. The day to day work needs to bring you joy, not pining for great reviews or to be featured in magazines.

Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

Identify what area of this business will make you the happiest and work towards that. Don’t feel forced to take a specific route.

Be patient, learn as much as you can at each level and don’t take the next step until you are ready. It’s a mistake I see young cooks making all of the time; they have had some success as a line cook and then someone gives them a job as a chef — but they don’t have any management skills yet and are not ready to be in charge. This is a major problem in our industry — people in charge without any leadership experience.

My approach was always the same at each stage of my career — identify the person in the position above me and do my current job as if I was in their position so that I was always positioning myself for the next opportunity. I worked at my assigned level and the level above me so that when I was eventually assigned to that level, I was qualified and prepared with a sense of maturity.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

I am very lucky that Saltbox Seafood Joint had the ability to adjust quite easily, I’ve always done to-go, and my first location was a walk-up / take-out spot without any indoor seating.

But I’ve also made some serious adjustments and first and foremost made myself flexible. We started making “Ready-to-Eat” meals for the school system and also started offering Family Meals to-go (kind of like a TV dinner for four people).

We have also made a big effort to support our local North Carolina fisherman partners. We invited some of them to set up a temporary fish market in our parking lot and I was selling fresh fish stew using their product; there was a wonderful synergy there.

My advice on how to stay relevant? Stay authentic to your identity and be a rock-star in your neighborhood. When stuff gets hard you must be able to rely on your community and vice-versa.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

To be completely honest I entered into this career very well researched and was pretty clear on the challenges and pitfalls from the beginning. Don’t forget that before going to the Culinary Institute of America I had already served in the military as a cook for close to decade. And going back to my upbringing and my family, we were all very hard workers and everyone worked. Growing up in a rural part of North Carolina I did a lot of farm work — tobacco and potatoes — and learned early on the responsibilities of what having a job ment.

So when I knew that I wanted to be a professional chef outside of the military I did my research into the behavior and mechanics of what it would mean to spend my life in the food service business. I can say, pretty unequivocally, that I went into it with my eyes wide open. So trying to list five things is pretty hard…but here are two:

  1. I wish someone told me that contractors don’t get things done when they said they would. And when you hire contractors to do work, they may not know what they are doing, but you still have to pay them. When I opened my second location I had some major issues with my contractor. If I had known these things in advance, I would have been an extreme micromanage instead of trusting them to do their job because I thought they were the expert.
  2. I wish I had known that my wife was going to change in the process of my career. She was totally on board with me being a chef from the beginning, meaning she was understanding of the long hours and time away from home but that tolerance waned over the years. Don’t get me wrong, we are still together, 30 years strong with two beautiful children. But I wish I would have known how to approach that better and what I could have done to adjust myself and my priorities.

And here are five things that might offer some guidance to anyone looking to make a career in the food service business:

  1. Have a strong work ethic, don’t be afraid of hard work and be prepared to be on your feet for long hours.
  2. Be prepared to work in a team environment and be patient with people who might not have your skill level — it’s the team not the individual. The military really taught me that.
  3. Make sure to have a multitude of different skill sets — you have to understand how to juggle, be disciplined and have an understanding of the different aspects of the business. There are tons of great cooks, but if you want to be a restaurateur you need to be creative about the business, it’s not just about being a great cook. You need to know how to take care of the three most important parts of your business: your customers, your employees and investors.
  4. Be prepared for all of the physical and mental sharpness required to succeed. It’s a tough business and you have to take care of yourself. Someone early on told me this and boy am I glad I listened.
  5. Don’t get caught up in the trappings of the TV chef.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

My Crab and Grits. It adheres to the principles I discussed above about craveable dishes. Everyone knows shrimp and grits, but I use local crab when it’s in season and since everyone loves crab, it’s still familiar. There are also a lot of layers of flavor and it’s full of “sure-handedness.”

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am interested in inspiring people to have empathy and compassion which in turn will help us better define the basic notion of equality. At the end of the day we all want the same things: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One way to do that would be to rewrite the Golden Rule. Instead of saying “treat others the way YOU want to be treated,” I would change it to “treat others the way THEY want to be treated.” To me, this shows respect and celebrates everyone’s individuality.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Saltbox Seafood Joint: https://www.saltboxseafoodjoint.com/

IG: @saltboxseafoodjoint

FB: @saltboxseafoodjoint

Twitter: @saltboxseafood

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