Fish Fare: At Home With Saltbox Seafood Chef Ricky Moore

In his kitchen and in his restaurants, Durham chef Ricky Moore celebrates North Carolina seafood with international touches.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Chris Charles

“Herbs are not just for color,” Ricky Moore says. “Use them like salt and pepper!” He stuffs fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley, along with copious salt and pepper, inside a Pink Porgy fish, then throws it under a broiler. As for the fish: it should be fresh, of course, whole is best, and, most importantly, it should be from North Carolina.

“Your culinary DNA stays with you no matter what. You never leave that. You’ll come right back to it,” says Moore. “But along the way, you’ve collected tools.” The Durham chef’s home kitchen smells of citrus, garlic and the Atlantic ocean. The contents of its shelves are filled with tools—enamelware, cast iron, ceramic Dutch ovens and filet knives he’s collected from all over the world.

Moore’s dedication to local seafood is at the forefront of everything he does, including his beloved fish joints, his cookbook and his UNC-TV mini-series. In recent years, he’s garnered national attention and become a face of North Carolina seafood. Then, there are the accolades: he’s been a James Beard finalist, was dubbed “Best Chef in the Triangle” by INDYWeek and had his restaurant, Saltbox Seafood Joint, named a “Best New Restaurant” by The News & Observer.

With our long stretch of coastline, the Atlantic spoils us with fish options, Moore says. “Just as Maryland has its crab cakes and South Carolina has its shrimp and grits, I want North Carolina to be known for its own seafood, not just whole hog BBQ,” he says. In addition to the well-known fish like Mahi-Mahi, tuna, shrimp and flounder, our coast offers Spanish Mackerel, Red Drum, Bluefish and White Grunt. These lesser-known types of fish, when eaten fresh and prepared properly, can be just as satisfying. And you’ll find all of them fried, pan-seared or broiled at his establishments and his home.

A Student of the Seas

Moore grew up in New Bern, exploring Carteret County and fishing for croaker and butterfish. While his love of Eastern North Carolina is infinite, from a young age, he wanted to explore the world. At age 18, after high school, he enlisted in the military as a paratrooper and then became a military cook, where he learned the art of self-discipline and precision in the kitchen: how to feed crowds and the value of feeding soldiers wholesome meals. While stationed in Hawaii, he met his wife Norma—the granddaughter of a fisherman—and they now have two children, Hunter and Greyson.

After seven years in the military on both active duty and on reserve, Moore went on to the Culinary Institute of America. He remembers writing a paper on French country cooking, finding that the concept of duck confit, rendering the fat and storing it for later, was vaguely similar to how his grandmother made sausage. “I made those connections. Take coq au vin: the way the French would cook with wine, we cook with water or broth to stew meat, too.” Cultural differences among foods show themselves in ingredients and sometimes technique, but more often than not, the fundamentals are the same. “I’m a country boy that grew up in North Carolina. But as I moved forward and forged on with being a professional chef, I wanted to diversify my experiences. There’s a common thread in what we grew up eating and what someone else had,” he says.

So after his culinary education, he sought culinary immersion: Moore traveled the world working in commercial kitchens, some Michelin-star rated, across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, fascinated by how many similarities there were between these cuisines and the dishes he grew up eating. Food is universal and unites us, he says. A three-week stay in Singapore eating street food like spiced chili crab and noodles from small wooden food stalls in open-air markets stuck with him. “Often the best food isn’t served in a restaurant. It’s on the streets. People can do one thing and it’s delicious and that’s all they’ve been doing for years and years,” he says. Moore appreciated the simplicity of mastering one good dish.

Coming Home

After settling down in the Triangle, Moore had trouble finding his wife a good fish sandwich. So he took a cue from Singapore—because if there was one thing he was a master of, it was fish. Saltbox Seafood Joint opened in 2012 as an homage to the fish he grew up catching and eating, incorporating the ethnic food traditions Moore absorbed abroad and the attention to detail he learned as a professional chef.

Hushpuppies and oyster po-boys are reference points for Saltbox dishes, but only that. His trademarked Hush-Honeys are half hushpuppy, half zeppole (a fried Italian dessert), drizzled with spices and honey. Piled-high, perfectly-crispy N.C. fried oysters are the star of his oyster sandwich, but the bread, toasted in seafood butter, is a close second, topped with a crunchy, lemony cabbage fennel slaw. “People often ask me if they can just buy the bread!” says Moore. It’s elevated, five-star food that’s a reference to Moore’s worldly curiosities, but also an homage to humble eastern N.C. fish. It’s all served out of two basic rustic fish shacks, with a daily changing chalkboard menu based on what the tides bring in.

Lin Peterson, the owner of Raleigh based Locals Seafood, says Moore has opened locals’ palates to lesser-loved fish native to N.C. “We hear customers stop by and say, ‘I had dogfish at Ricky Moore’s place,’ who then want to cook it at home. You need a chef that embraces local seafood.” Moore is adamant about promoting the state’s fishing industry. “Saltbox is seafood-centric to support N.C. fishermen and women, that’s the goal, that’s important,” says Moore.

Teach A Man To (Cook) Fish

Eventually, Moore felt like he wanted to deepen the connection between Saltbox’s patrons and the fish they were eating. The Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook was published last year. In it, Moore teaches you how to be a fish whisperer like him. “It’s not meant to be a glossy, image-filled cookbook that just sits on a coffee table,” he says. “It’s the fundamentals to get comfortable with cooking fresh seafood.”

Inside, several pages of illustrations point out different fish species. Charts tell the readers the different types of cuts and what to ask your fishmonger, depending on the season. And being both a veteran and Culinary Institute graduate, he reiterates the importance of the French cooking practice, mise en place, and outlines essential equipment and homemade staples. But beyond being a fish guide, it’s a testament to the fact that fresh fish is quite simple to cook. For example, Moore shares a little secret for knowing when your whole fish is done: “It’s when the dorsal fin, the very back one, comes out easily.”

Inside the cookbook are Saltbox bestsellers, but also starter recipes like Stewed Clams and Country Sausage, Hickory Charcoal Mullet with BBQ Butter and Singapore-style Fish Collar Curry. Heat, acid, licorice, herbs, tang—these are all things that can pair with fish. “Flavor notes can come in many different forms,” he says.

Moore has shared new recipes for a fish-forward summer spread at home. But don’t, he says, let these recipes intimidate you. “Keep it simple,” he says. “Fresh fish doesn’t need much to elevate the flavor of the sea that’s already there.”

Click here for Ricky Moore’s recipes to cook local seafood at home.