One on One: Honors for Chef Ricky Moore
Published 8:28 am Sunday, January 1, 2023
By D.G. Martin
The Raleigh News & Observer got it right last week when it named Ricky Moore as Tar Heel of the Year for 2022.
Moore shares the honor with distinguished prior Tar Heels of the year such as banking leader Hugh McColl and historian John Hope Franklin.
This new honor follows Moore’s designation as “Best Chef: Southeast” in the 2022 James Beard Awards competition.
These recent successes have not surprised people who follow North Carolina food trends. North Carolina’s cultural icon David Cecelski, author of “A Historian’s Coast: Adventures into the Tidewater Past,” gushes in his praise of Moore’s book and the food he prepares and serves at his Durham restaurant.
These honors and the praise are capstones to Moore’s amazing and inspirational life. In his book, “Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook,” Moore describes how he rose from a hardworking family in coastal North Carolina and used his growing up experiences, military service, an education at the country’s leading college for chefs, and experience in kitchens of the best restaurants in the U.S. and Europe to make a tiny seafood restaurant in Durham one of the country’s most admired eateries.
“I grew up along the Neuse and Trent rivers and spent plenty of my childhood fishing those waters. We’d haul our catch home for our aunts and grandmother to do the extra-messy job of scaling, gutting, and cleaning (they never trusted us kids to do it).”
Moore says he was also an “army brat.” He spent time in Germany. “There I was, a little kid with an afro and an orange Fat Albert shirt, soaking up all the German food culture.”
After high school he knew that the military could give him the kind of experience he had in Germany. So, when he turned 18 in 1987, he enlisted. After basic training and jump school came time for advanced individual training, “I picked the first option that would get me out of New Bern: military cook school in Fort Jackson, South Carolina!”
He learned that meals “had to sustain, had to be wholesome, and had to feed a lot of people.” He learned “how to scale a recipe for a crowd, how to measure, and how to cook in huge vessels and vats.”
After the Army, he enrolled at Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., known in the cooking world as the Harvard of culinary education.
After CIA, he “hopped from one exciting kitchen to another, working with all kinds of cuisines.” He worked for free in the best restaurants in France.
“Through this work abroad, I found a shared sense of tradition, culture, behavior, and, most important, discipline when it came to food and dining. I was the only person of color in these European kitchens, which made me even more intense about learning as much as possible. Being black automatically pigeonholed you.”
After returning to the U.S. and working in executive chef positions in Chicago and Washington, he and his wife Norma moved back to North Carolina and settled in Chapel Hill.
One day Norma asked where she could get a good fish sandwich “with local fish, lightly breaded and seasoned, fried in fresh oil until golden brown and delicious, then served on fresh slices of yeasty sweet bread and garnished with traditional cooked green pepper and spicy onion relish plus tartar sauce chock full of capers, cornichons, eggs, and herbs.”
No local seafood restaurant had what she wanted. But Moore knew he could prepare it – if he could find a good place to work. “I wanted a little shop, to do one thing really well, and to control every aspect of it. This was ultimately the base of my business model.”
He found that right place in Durham, first downtown at the original Saltbox Seafood Joint, and then at a new location on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, and in the process, has become a North Carolina icon.
Watch my interview Ricky Moore at pbs.org/video/ricky-moore-saltbox-seafood-joint-cookbook-cd3cru/ or google “Ricky Moore Bookwatch.”
D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.