Chef Keith Rhodes is a star of Wilmington dining scene

After a turn on ‘Top Chef,’ Keith Rhodes speaks out for his coastal community

aweigl@newsobserver.comJune 6, 2012 

  • So what happened on ‘Top Chef’? Wilmington chef Keith Rhodes was eliminated in the first round of after buying pre-cooked frozen shrimp for his teammates’ ceviche and making enchiladas with flour tortillas – a sin in Texas, where his season was taped. What does Rhodes have to say? Rhodes, who made his name at a seafood restaurant, says there’s more to the story than what viewers saw. He and other chefs were shopping at a wholesale market when he proposed buying precooked shrimp, and he discussed the options by phone with teammates shopping at a Whole Foods store. Rhodes says they decided to go with his idea rather than expensive shrimp that didn’t look great at Whole Foods. Rhodes says he never knew corn tortillas were traditional for enchiladas and took issue with his teammates’ not correcting him until they were before the judges.
  • Want to go? Chef Keith Rhodes has two Wilmington restaurants: Catch, 6623 Market St, Wilmington, 910-799-3847, Phun, 215 Princess St., Wilmington, 910-762-2841,

— Robert Downey Jr.’s people called. The actor, in town filming “Iron Man 3,” had dined at chef Keith Rhodes’ Catch restaurant earlier in the week and now wanted takeout for the plane ride to Los Angeles for Memorial Day weekend.

This VIP takeout is just part of a very full day in the life of a very busy chef. Rhodes is picking up his first food truck, which he hopes to get on the road soon. He has important diners at Catch, a couple of television executives who helped him get on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” the popular show in which chefs compete for $100,000. And he should have packed houses at Catch and his other restaurant, Phun, on this Friday night before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer and this town’s busy season.

But Rhodes, 40, is up for more. He’s not going to pass up the opportunity to share his town’s treasures. He insists on taking an out-of-town journalist to Bento Box, his favorite sushi restaurant for lunch, and to a new seafood market, Cape Fear Coast Seafood.

“It’s not just about me,” Rhodes says.

With celebrity comes duty. Rhodes’ short “Top Chef” appearance last season cemented his status as spokesman for Wilmington’s food scene. As a longtime champion of local seafood and local restaurants, he seems perfect for the role.

“He really gave us some exposure we could never afford when he was on ‘Top Chef,’ talking about Wilmington and our coast and the cuisine here,” says Connie Nelson, spokeswoman for the Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He’s not only talented, but he’s a great spokesman for our area.”

At 6-foot-5 and more than 230 pounds, Rhodes can look intimidating to those who don’t know him. But he’s a classic teddy bear: quick to laugh with his staff, quiet and intense during dinner service and able to admonish with a stern look or quiet comment. He has worked hard for what he has, and he takes food, and business, seriously. He has overcome obstacles in his life to get where he is today.

Rough start

Rhodes grew up in South Philadelphia, the child of an ill mother who worked as a nurse and a father who struggled with addiction. After his mother died of a brain aneurysm when he was 13, he and his sister came to Wilmington to live with his father’s parents. (His mother’s parents also lived nearby.)

Their lives changed in the sleepy Southern beach town. It was as if they were growing up in the 1950s instead of the 1980s.

Rhodes describes his paternal grandfather, Royce, as the “last gentleman.” He didn’t own a pair of sneakers; he wore khakis and a button-down shirt to tend the garden. A retired private butler on the railroad, he booked bartenders and waiters for private parties at the homes of Wilmington’s wealthiest families and worked as a bartender at the Figure Eight Island Yacht Club. Rhodes’ first kitchen job was as a dishwasher at the yacht club, where he was exposed to classically trained chefs from Europe. Watching diners enjoy those beautifully prepared plates of food sparked his interest in a career in the kitchen.

While life was better in Wilmington, Rhodes struggled as a teenager. “We always had someone to take care of us, but we didn’t have anyone to direct us,” Rhodes says. He dropped out of school in 10th grade and started working in kitchens. At 23 , he served three months on minor drug charges. When he got home, he landed a job at Deluxe, a fine dining restaurant in Wilmington. A second sentence two years later on marijuana charges took him away from his wife, Angela, and two children and that good job at Deluxe.

His boss at the time, chef Aaron Peterson, says the experience changed Rhodes: “That wasn’t a life that boded well for a very good future – having that pulled away from him was just the motivation he needed.”

Rhodes says: “I made a promise to myself to never return.”

A changed man

He came home and put a wish list on the refrigerator: house, cars, career. He returned to Deluxe, got a second job at as a prep cook at another restaurant, walked to work each day until he could afford a reliable car.

Within a few years, he was named executive chef at Deluxe. He was able to buy the house he and his family were renting. When a nearby bagel shop closed, he decided to open his first restaurant, Catch, a seafood lunch spot in 2006. He continued to work nights at Deluxe and ran Catch during the day. His mix of Southern and Asian flavors at a casual eatery and a fine dining restaurant got him attention.

In 2007, he swept the Best Dish in North Carolina contest, run by state agriculture officials, winning in both casual and fine dining categories for dishes at Deluxe and Catch. He eventually left Deluxe and opened a second Catch restaurant on Market Street, east of downtown. He would later transform the original Catch into a Vietnamese restaurant called Phun. Last year, Rhodes was a semifinalist for Best Chef in the Southeast award from the James Beard Foundation, which is one of the highest honors for a chef.

Rhodes’ cooking is a mixture of classical French, Southern and Asian styles. One of the most popular menu items at Catch is his “Angry Lobster,” which is wok-seared and served with white truffle and foie gras fried sticky rice.

“He’s a very savvy chef. He’s a very savvy restaurant owner,” says Liz Biro, a Wilmington food writer and culinary tour guide. “All that combines to put him where he is today.”

And then a television executive who visited Wilmington frequently recruited Rhodes to appear on last season’s “Top Chef.” Rhodes was quickly eliminated for an embarrassing gaffe, buying precooked shrimp and using flour instead of corn tortillas for enchiladas. Rhodes took his dismissal in stride, realizing his appearance brought more attention to his restaurants and Wilmington’s evolving food scene.

Local cuisine

Being a restaurateur in Wilmington can be tough. Good independent local eateries are struggling as national chains thrive, Rhodes says. He would like to see Wilmington become a dining destination like Charleston, S.C., championing local seafood and food traditions.

“It’s up to chefs to preserve the local community as far as cuisine,” he says.

Rhodes has ideas to entice diners to eat and dine locally. A Catch food truck will get on the road within days. A second truck will be configured to serve barbecue. He’s thinking about an icehouse-themed restaurant near downtown.

Ideas seem to pour out of him from one moment to the next. Before lunch, he mentions checking out a truck for a sous chef’s burgeoning burrito business. Later that night, with Robert Downey Jr.’s takeout order gone and dinner service winding down at Catch, Rhodes sits at the bar and muses aloud about opening an Italian restaurant. It’s unclear which of Rhodes’ many ideas could become reality, but it seems certain that some will. He has proven to himself, and the food world, that he has the talent, ambition and business savvy to make his dreams come true.

“I’m not having to wish so much anymore,” Rhodes says. “That’s a really good thing.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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