North Carolina Sea Grant

August 28, 2017 | Barry Nash

seafood traditions

Chef Ricky Moore, owner of the Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham, describes himself as a creative type. While growing up in New Bern, he aspired to be an artist, so his path to the culinary profession “happened indirectly.” His extended family across eastern North Carolina exposed him to exceptional cooking, and during high school, Moore worked at a number of local restaurants. After graduating, Moore joined the military where his culinary education really began.

During his 10 years in the service, Moore traveled to cities such as Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., and to foreign destinations like France, Singapore and Germany. To understand the different cultures he was living in, Moore says he began to cook what the locals ate — and realized he had a passion for it. When Moore left the military, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Upon graduation in 1994, he started working in high-end, four-star restaurants in the eastern United States where his rising reputation earned him an invitation to appear on Iron Chef of America in 2007.

About 10 years ago he came back to North Carolina and began exploring business opportunities in the Triangle. He wanted to understand how people spent money on food and what they enjoyed eating.

While researching the area, he noticed food trucks had become the latest culinary trend. Moore thought this might be an economical approach to develop a brand of his own. During his exploration of small local eateries, a property on Mangum Street, the current location of the Saltbox Seafood Joint, caught his eye. He carefully observed the restaurant’s traffic for a few weeks and decided this was the right place to develop his dream.

Raised on fresh coastal catch, Moore enjoyed eating seafood, like the toothy but tasty sheepshead, unknown to many consumers. Today’s seafood eaters, Moore says, have been trained by their local markets to focus on a narrow selection of products like shrimp, flounder and oysters. He wanted to broaden people’s perceptions of great seafood by introducing them to the diversity of species North Carolina offers. Saltbox, then, would be a joint – a small, urban eatery that specialized in wild, locally caught seafood from the North Carolina coast.

Saltbox serves fried and grilled seafood because Moore strives to provide simple, uncomplicated meals reflective of the cooking styles he enjoyed as a kid. He takes time to explain to customers that North Carolina seafood has a season, which is why he doesn’t serve fresh bluefish or cape shark year-round. Moore says the mission of the Saltbox brand is to celebrate local North Carolina seafood in season, as well as the hardworking men and women along the coast who harvest it.

His emphasis on education is making a difference. Moore notes that his loyal customers want to support coastal fishing communities — to feel a personal connection with fishermen. They are excited to learn of more species worth sampling beyond the standard shrimp, flounder and oysters.

Moore relies on Locals Seafood and Salty Catch Seafood to source products for his business. These two businesses help “authenticate my brand,” he says. In addition, they share his commitment to serving seafood of the highest quality. Moore says Lin Peterson and Ryan Speckman of Locals Seafood and Renee Perry and Steve Goodwin of Salty Catch are great people to work with. They value and care about the livelihoods and heritage of North Carolina fishermen, just like he does. If not for them, Moore says the Saltbox Seafood Joint would not exist.

The Saltbox Seafood Joint is doing so well after five years that Moore is preparing to open another location. Long term, though, he wants to write a book that chronicles the seafood cooking styles of fishing communities. When people think of North Carolina seafood, he says folks reflexively mention Calabash-style cooking. Moore knows there’s much more variety in the way seafood is prepared and flavored along the coast than most inland people realize. His aim is to one day promote the traditional ways seafood have been prepared by fishermen for generations.

Until then, he continues to master the art of North Carolina seafood.

With his guidance, you too could master the art of cooking North Carolina seafood, starting with the humble clam.

The hard clam always has been a coastal favorite. Its scientific name, Mercenaria mercenaria, comes from the Latin word for wages. Native Americans made beads from clam shells to use as money.

Markets classify hard clams by their size. The smallest, under 2 inches, is called the littleneck. Cherrystones are 2 to 3 inches in size and topnecks are 3 to 3.5 inches. Any clam larger than 3.5 inches is a chowder clam.

Topnecks and chowder clams are less tender, so it’s best to chop them for soups, fritters and stuffed clams. Enjoy Chef Moore’s recipe for clams cooked in a gold tomato and corn broth.

Photo courtesy of Chef Ricky Moore.

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