Raleigh, NC – Durham chef Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood said he has yet to sleep after being named Best Chef in the Southeast Monday night at the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Moore spoke to WRAL News from the airport, where he is making his way home from Chicago, site of the awards gala often referred to as the “Oscars of Food.”
“It was surreal,” he said. “As a chef, as a restaurant person, as a chef-owner, as a chef-entrepreneur, these are the times. These are the peaks.”
Moore, who was a semi-finalist for the honor in 2020, opened Saltbox Seafood on North Mangum Street in 2012 and closed that location in 2021. A second location followed at 2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd. in 2017, and there a line stretched out the door Tuesday during lunch.
In his acceptance speech, Moore thanked his wife of 30 years, Norma, his children and his restaurant family.
“I have five of the most superior employees one could ever have, and they are all female,” Moore said.
Moore also shouted out “his home team” of North Carolina James Beard finalists including Raleigh’s Cheetie Kumar and Alley Twenty Six owner Shannon Healy. Kumar was a finalist in the same category as Moore, while Healy’s Alley Twenty Six was a finalist for Outstanding Bar Program.
Two Asheville restaurants won national James Beard Awards, a reflection of that town’s emergence as a foodie go-to.
Cúrate in Asheville received a national James Beard Award for Outstanding Hospitality, while Chai Pani in Asheville took home the national award for Outstanding Restaurant.
In his acceptance speech, Moore also gave a shout out to the “Bull City.”
“I’ve been in the business for awhile, and I’ve spent a lot of time working in a lot of different environments,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to be recognized for what I’m currently doing.”
Moore also celebrated the fishing community, specifically North Carolina “fisherfolk,” which includes fishermen and women.
He said, “I opened up a space on the side of the road that was 205 square feet. The menu was simple; I wrote it on the chalkboard. I got burned out being the executive chef here and the executive chef there, so my restaurant, Saltbox, was like my apprenticeship to entrepreneurship, and I put my heart and soul into it. “
From Army chef to Durham award-winner
In an interview with WRAL in 2020, Moore described his culinary journey, which took him across the globe.
Moore almost did not become a chef. As a boy growing up in New Bern, he wanted to become an artist.
“I was going to go to school for art. That’s all I did in high school,” Moore said. “I got a scholarship to go to East Carolina University, but ultimately decided I did not want to go to school.”
Instead, Moore joined the US Army and became a cook, where he said a good meal could boost morale.
“As a military cook, you took pride in the idea,” he said.
He also treasured the travel that the Army afforded.
“When I was in the military, another bonus was I got to travel around the planet, and every place we went to, I ate,” he said.
After a decade with the Army, Moore eventually went to the Culinary Institute of America. Internationally, Moore has cooked in Paris, Singapore and Toronto. Stateside he cooked for years in Chicago and Washington DC
“I just want to make sure I always stayed diversified,” Moore said.
A focus on ‘fisherfolk,’ fresh seafood
He decided to focus on seafood in his Durham venture to showcase North Carolina’s bounty.
“We have a coast line that is huge, and we are blessed with brackish water,” Moore said. “I wanted to showcase the fact that there’s more stuff that swims on our coast than shrimp, flounder and oysters.
“After 10 years in business, I feel that I have indirectly helped educate people on eating different types of fish, like bluefish, Spanish mackerel, amico jack, sheepshead, spadefish, mahi, drum, all those sorts of fish that do not get showcased on menus. “
Saltbox is also a salute to those who land those sea creatures.
“We also have a huge fishing community that needs support,” Moore said, “so I felt like, you know, I could kill a lot of birds with one stone.”
He advises home chefs to do the same –– source ingredients locally and be prepared to experiment.
“If you’re cooking something and mess it up, you learn from it,” Moore said. “Also, be aware of where your surroundings are and try to support local farmers and local markets.”
North Carolina chefs, food scene shine at James Beard Awards
Several North Carolina restaurants and chefs were finalists for the national James Beard Awards.
Durham’s Alley Twenty Six was the first North Carolina bar or restaurant to be named a finalist for Outstanding Bar Program in the country. Julep in Houston took home the honor.
“We’m just incredibly proud to get to carry the flag for North Carolina,” owner Shannon Healy told WRAL earlier this month. “Being the first in this category for North Carolina, we get to represent other outstanding bar programs in the state.”
Cleophus Hethington, the chef of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, was a finalist for Emerging Chef. The award was presented to Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria in Austin, Texas.
North Carolina chefs have a history of winning James Beard Awards. Lantern’s Andrea Reusing won best chef in the southeast in 2011. Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill won the same honor in 2000. Karen and Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill won outstanding pastry chef in 2003.
Raleigh’s Ashley Christensen, who won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 2019, won the award for best chef in the southeast in 2014.
Moore is able to see excellence in every cuisine.
“Saltbox’s success has come from the community support over time, and me being consistent with what I’m doing, over and over again, for the long haul,” he said.
“If you’re good at making hot dogs, that’s fine,” he said. “Make the best hot dog you can make over and over again. For me, excellence happens through repetitive activities.”