Saltbox Seafood Joint
by: Lauren Alston
If you find yourself craving fresh seafood, the Saltbox Seafood Joint is the number one place to go. Located in historic Little Five Points and just a few blocks from downtown Durham, this may be the most popular not quite “best kept secret” in Durham. I recently visited the Saltbox Seafood Joint twice, first to enjoy a delicious meal, and then to interview the chef and owner, Ricky Moore. On each of my visits I witnessed a steady flow of customers feasting what is undoubtedly, the best seafood I have had.
Chef Ricky Moore is a North Carolina native with a passion for food. He has cooked all over the world, from Chicago to Singapore, and appeared on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” in 2007. As I stepped into the kitchen to interview him while he was cooking, I was overcome by the mouth-watering smells of the dishes being created. Like a true artist, his fast-paced yet careful movements were always in sync with the pops and sizzles of the food. What follows is a glimpse of how this artist has mastered his craft.
LA: “I visited your website to prepare for this interview, you said that you first started cooking in high school when you were in a home economics class. What was it specifically that sparked your interest in cooking?”
Chef: “I wanted to get girls, they were all in the class. And I later on realized that I actually enjoyed it.”
LA: “Early on in your career did you have any mentors?”
Chef: “Not specifically, a lot of different kinds of people inspired me. Chefs, dishwashers, maître d’s, line cooks, all had the characteristics required to be true professionals.”
LA: “You’ve traveled a lot, what lead you to put down roots in Durham?”
Chef: “Well, Durham personally is a very fertile environment to grow a business. I enjoyed the diversity, how people embrace businessmen and entrepreneurs. Also, the economics were better.”
LA: “Saltbox is a seafood place, how did you find your niche in seafood, with all the many other types of food out there?”
Chef: “There was a need in the area for quality driven seafood content. There are people out there cooking fish, and I’m not knocking it, but what I’m saying is, in terms of what’s local, with so many different types of fish and such a great fish market, the location dictated what it was going to be.”
LA: “I know you only serve ‘fresh’ seafood daily until it runs out, why is it being ‘fresh’ important and how do you get your seafood?”
Chef: “Restoration is the only equalizer, if you’re going to serve fish you have to do it right. You know people always ask me – well what’s your signature dish? I don’t have signature dish because that would require me to have a single higher quality dish.”
LA: “How has travel and the many different restaurants you’ve cooked in, influenced your cooking today?”
Chef: “Well it’s always been to learn and build a repertoire of other people and other cultures and you know, diversify your experience and skill set. A lot of people would be considered one dimensional, they only know one way of doing things. Me, I pride myself in making sure that I learn a lot of new things. I wanted to learn different things and be able to cook a lot of different stuff, cooking in different environments, not just in fine dining, not just in here. For me good food is good food, whether you have it in a fancy restaurant or in a car.”
LA: “I know that you were on Iron Chef, what is the one lesson from that experience that you value the most?”
Chef: “Being a craftsmen, being true to what you do. A lot of times people feel like they have to do something outside of what they know or what they do. When I went on Iron Chef, you know the perception was the struggle is trying to do something you don’t normally do. When you do that, and it’s not who you are, you fail at it. So my philosophy was, I’m going to go on that show and cook my style of food and that’s it. Take it or leave it. I know it’s going to be good because it’s coming from me, so that was the thing that I went to the show with. You can’t fake it, because people see right through it.”
LA: “What’s your philosophy when it comes to food, and the dishes you prepare at Saltbox?”
Chef: “The philosophy is all about simplicity and quality. My preparations are not meant to be engineered and handled so much, it’s all about quality product and I handle it with respect.”
LA: “What inspires you?”
Chef: “My inspiration comes from examples that I see on a daily basis, it could be anything. I’m really inspired when I see people creating change in the world, I think that’s something. Outside of people wanting to be rich or famous, I believe when you put some action behind it, if you’re making change one way or the other it’s great.”
LA: “What do you love most about what you do?”
Chef: “The creativity. I’m a creative person, so I think if you enjoy being creative and I can put my hands on something raw and the finished product is something that someone is inspired by, that’s great.”
LA: “How do you continue to evolve and grow as a chef?”
Chef: “Reading and eating. That’s how I stay current and I make sure that I’m not one to follow trend, there’s nothing new under the sun, everything comes full circle. So I think that if I read a lot about what’s going on in the world in terms of food, and I try to eat, I can pick out the people that in my mind are the craftsmen. The people that really want to do something nice and that’s what I try to do here. It’s not rocket science, I fry and cook fish. But I do it with such a level of care.”
LA: “Do you have any plans to grow bigger?”
Chef: “I do. I’m going to do it organically I just need to find the right location and the right economics. I don’t need to be in a rush to do this, I need to make really solid moves. I think being here for two years has been great and what’s next needs to be phase two of my vision, where I have this sit-down place, but not big, that encompasses what I call a working fisherman’s market. Where you have raw retail product, open air kitchen, and an environment where I can give classes, and call it, ironically, a ‘school’, like a ‘school of fish’, and teach people about fish because a lot of people don’t know much. People come up to the window and say ‘what’s tuna, what type of grouper do you have, what type of shrimp’; so I would like to have a classroom environment where we teach and show people how to butcher fish and teach them the difference between types of fish.”
LA: “Any words of advice, for a teenage or adult with a passion for cooking and wanting to pursue becoming a chef?”
Chef: “Know that this is a craft of passion and not just a means to get on food network or a means to be something different. In my mind, it needs to be a calling almost. I mean I cook for a living, let’s take away the word ‘chef’ and take away all the things I’ve done and the bottom line is that I cook for a living, this is a choice. I don’t think I chose to do this, it chose me. I just think it’s a craft of passion, don’t do it because it’s a trend, do it because you love it and it’s what you genuinely want to do. You don’t need formal training or culinary school you just have to want it and be happy.”
One taste of any of the delicious dishes at the Saltbox Seafood Joint will let you know that Ricky Moore is a great chef and craftsman. However, what inspired me the most about this experience was his love and passion for what he does. Shortly after this interview I read an article on a blog that talked about just that, the importance of making a career out of something you enjoy and that you are passionate about, and I immediately thought of Chef Ricky. Once he found his passion, he worked hard to get where he is today, and continues to learn and grow so he can become better.
As a high school sophomore I’m starting to think about what I want to study in college and what type of career I may have in the future. Although I have a few ideas, one thing is for sure, I will be thinking long and hard about what I enjoy and finding my passion. I’ve heard many adults talk about the importance of finding a good job, but after meeting with Chef Ricky I realize that ‘a good job’ also means making a career out of something you enjoy doing. Ultimately, I hope to be as lucky as Chef Ricky and discover not only ‘a good job’ but my passion in the process.
The Clarion Content has a proud history of extremely talented and thoughtful interns. Our newest addition to the team, Ms. Lauren Alston, is carrying the banner forward with honor. She is a vivacious rising sophomore at Chapel Hill High School who’s curiosity and perseverance has enabled her to cross the distance, physical and social from to Durham to Chapel Hill before she is even old enough to drive.
All photos by Beth Mandel of BWPW Photography.