Local chefs open shops that elevate humble items

aweigl@newsobserver.comJanuary 3, 2013 

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Ricky Moore seasons some of his fresh homemade potato chips which go with every order of seafood from his Saltbox Seafood Shack on North Mangum Street near downtown Durham.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

The glazed doughnut with chocolate icing has that crunchy initial bite with a chewy follow-through.

It achieves chef Tom Ferguson’s aim of “mouth-pull.” Or at least that’s the term he came up with for the ideal doughnut experience after visiting a dozen doughnut shops in seven cities from Seattle to New York during an eight-day trip this summer. He called it the “U.S. Donut Tour 2012.”

Ferguson, who owns Durham Catering Co. and started the Only Burger food truck, opened Rise, a doughnut and biscuit shop, in Durham this fall near the Streets of Southpoint. He brings a chef’s sensibilities to fare that is usually the domain of fast-food chains.

And he isn’t the only chef to build a restaurant around elevating a humble food.

Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner owns two restaurants, one devoted to burgers and the other to fried chicken. In 2011, she opened Chuck’s and Beasley’s Chicken + Honey right next to each other on Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh.

Also in Durham this fall, chef Ricky Moore opened the Saltbox Seafood Joint, a take-out only stand serving fried and grilled seafood. Chef Gray Brooks, a Durham native, opened Pizzeria Toro with a limited menu mainly devoted to wood-fired pizza.

The single-mindedness extends beyond the Triangle. Chef Hubert Keller has locations of his Burger Bar in Las Vegas and San Francisco. Superstar chef Daniel Boulud opened DBGB serving house made sausages and burgers in Manhattan. Also in New York City, diners can find eateries devoted to meatballs, parmesan sandwiches and pies.

Clark Wolf, a New York City-based restaurant consultant, isn’t surprised by the trend. It’s based in part on the recession.

“Simple has become valuable again,” Wolf says. “One of the marks of a good chef is doing simple things really well.”

Ferguson of Rise and Moore of Saltbox were inspired by similar experiences: dining out with their families.

Ferguson says he was tired of the limited weekend breakfast options for his family with three daughters, a 9-year-old and 2 1/2-year-old twins. He and his wife could take the girls to Bojangles’ or a sit-down restaurant for brunch. So Rise offers take-a-number counter service with tables for families to sit outside. (Before venturing outside, make sure your child takes a peek through the child-level window to see the doughnut and biscuit-making in progress.) A chicken biscuit costs $4 – the most expensive item on the menu – and doughnuts cost between $1 and $3.

“I knew the families would come,” Ferguson says.

Moore, a New Bern native, saw a need for a good seafood joint, like they have at the coast. He knew families like his own – with a wife and two children, ages 8 and 4 – were on a budget but still wanted high-quality seafood.

“Just because I can’t spend a lot of money doesn’t meant I don’t want quality,” Moore says.

At Saltbox, a sandwich costs between $6 and $8 and seafood plate costs up to $13. A seafood plate comes with fried or grilled fish, oysters or shrimp plus coleslaw and house-made french fries.

Both men bring their chef-level skills to these dishes.

Ferguson insists on making fresh doughnuts and biscuits throughout the day. Doughnuts are pitched after three hours in the display case. No biscuit is older than 30 minutes. Ferguson said the biscuit and doughnut dough are made from scratch, using North Carolina-milled flour.

At Saltbox, the seafood is delivered direct from the North Carolina coast every other day. Moore writes each day’s menu at 11:15 a.m. based on what seafood is available. He makes the cocktail and tartar sauce from scratch. His green curry chowder is made with trout and clams, homemade fish stock, coconut milk, cream and seasoned with kefir lime leaves.

While these chefs are trying elevate typically fast-food fare, one wouldn’t mind some fast food-level success.

Moore says, “I’m looking at scaling this brand. I need to be like Five Guys.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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