By DREW JACKSON, The News & Observer
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Starting with a small fried fish shack in Durham, chef Ricky Moore is at the top of the culinary world.
Moore is North Carolina’s latest James Beard Award winner, bringing home the Southeast’s top chef for his Saltbox Seafood Joint.
Known as the Oscars of the Food World, the James Beard Foundation Chef and Restaurant Awards have been on hiatus since the pandemic began in 2020. This month, the awards gala is returned to Chicago.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be recognized for what I’m doing right now,” Moore said in his acceptance speech. “I burned out as an executive chef here and an executive chef there. My restaurant was therefore a bit like my apprenticeship in entrepreneurship. And I put my heart and soul into it.
Although primarily famous for its brews, Asheville’s food scene has won two national James Beard Awards.
Chai Pani was named Outstanding Restaurant, James Beard Award Best Restaurant. Owned by Meherwan Irani, Chai Pani opened in 2009 and serves Indian street food.
Katie Button’s Spanish tapas restaurant, Curate, won the Outstanding Hospitality award for the best dining program in the country.
Moore shouted Durham from the stage, hurling Bull City horns with a shiny new James Beard Award medal on his chest.
Moore went to the best culinary school in the country and cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants, but his Saltbox Seafood Joint was born in a small shack in downtown Durham. The restaurant opened in 2012 as a 205-square-foot shack on North Mangum Street, serving everything fresh from the North Carolina coast. It expanded in 2017 with a larger location on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard in the Rockwood area of Durham.
Moore spotlights North Carolina seafood beyond shrimp, oysters and flounder, serving drum and mackerel and bluefish, fried and seasoned, topped with coleslaw and piled on buns or plates. Accompaniments include “Hush Honeys,” Moore’s honeyed take on silent puppies, and bright coleslaw.
“I took this little place that a lot of people thought was insignificant and made it a celebration of seafood culture,” said New Bern native Moore.
North Carolina chefs led the nominations for Best Chef: Southeast, with four of the five hailing from the Tar Heel State. In the Triangle, Moore was joined by Cheetie Kumar of Garland. Charlotte’s Greg Collier from Leah & Louise and Button from Curate were also nominated.
“There’s an explosion of culinary talent here,” Moore said ahead of the awards show. “People who are really into it, on fire about it. There are people who really want to be real cooks and talk about the cuisine of our region. And because of that, we are in conversation today with other destinations across the country. Charleston, New York, San Francisco, Chicago.
Past North Carolina winners include Ashley Christensen of Raleigh’s Poole’s Diner, who won Outstanding Chef in the Country in 2019 and Best Chef: Southeast in 2014, Andrea Reusing of Lantern in 2011 and Karen Barker and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill, who won Best Pastry Chef. in the Country in 2003 and Best Chef: Southeast in 2000, respectively.
This is the fifth year in a row that Kumar has been at least a James Beard semi-finalist. In 2020, Kumar was a finalist in the Best Chef: South East category, but those awards were rescinded and the awards changed in 2021 as the James Beard Foundation revamped its criteria for its honors in a bid to improve the fairness among winners, the group said. .
“I can’t help but think that North Carolina has always felt like a geographically great place to cook,” Kumar said ahead of the awards show. “The politics, the diversity, really lends our culture to great food and great ways to eat. It’s kind of shocking. I always thought this evolution would be more gradual. But that’s what’s happening when we stop and reassess everything.
North Carolina picked up two nominations in national award categories, including Durham’s Alley Twenty Six for Best Bar Program, led by owner Shannon Healy.
Asheville’s Cleophus Hethington of Benne on Eagle is up for Emerging Chef in the county.
Alley Twenty Six lost to Julep in Houston, Texas.
Alley Twenty Six brought the craft cocktail revival to Durham, opening in 2012 and helping to launch a vibrant drinks scene in the city centre.
The bar ascended into a small circle of nationally acclaimed cocktail bars with its nomination, but missed out on the James Beard Best Bar award, which went to Houston‘s Julep.
“It was wonderful, it’s humbling, in some ways it’s confusing,” Healy said ahead of the awards show. “It was really awesome to be able to be the people who hold the North Carolina banner.”
Healy, who also owns Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, said there is excitement about the appointment and perhaps higher expectations, but Alley Twenty Six is ready to meet them.
“I think we’ve already won,” Healy said of the nomination ahead of the awards. “It gives us the opportunity to prove (customers) right when they visit us. It’s not a golden ticket, it’s a golden opportunity.
Durham has a healthy collection of cocktail bars these days, but ten years ago Alley Twenty Six stood alone.
“People would come around saying, ‘It’s like a bar in New York,’ or ‘Like a bar in LA,’ like an alien had landed in downtown Durham,” Healy said. “I would say, ‘It’s more like a good bar in Durham.’ It’s my idea of what a good bar is, aware of its place in time.
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