It’s just after 11 a.m. on a Wednesday and the sizzle joins in with the humming kitchen fan as Ricky Moore drops a fry basket of his signature seasoned potatoes with onions and green peppers.
For more than 20 years, Moore – a U.S. Army cook turned graduate of Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York – traveled from the Big Apple to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, cooking in fine dining restaurants, a boutique hotel and at a culinary school. As a Washington, D.C., chef in 2007, he competed in the Food Network’s culinary competition/reality show Iron Chef America, where he unsuccessfully challenged Iron Chef Michael Symon.
But on this hump day, Moore, 45, was slicing, seasoning and searing seafood in Saltbox Seafood Joint’s 205 square-foot kitchen on the edgier part of the outskirts of downtown Durham.
Nearly three years ago, Moore veered off his path of moving from concept to concept every two to three years, executing fancy fusions and modern techniques. Instead, he steered his life toward a seafood joint that serves seasonal seafood on recyclable paper plates from a window.
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In October 2012, Moore invested about $8,000 in savings to turn a tired space on Mangum Street into a bright spot with picnic tables, orange umbrellas and a typical lunch line of people stretching down the sidewalk. The lines usually are longest on Saturday, when he serves crab grits.
Some customers wait outside and others in a car, but they are all willing to stand in line, and then wait another five to 30 minutes or more while Moore cooks their order up fresh.
He aims for a middle market, he said, that wants more than a fried basket.
The customers on Wednesday included two employees from a Durham software development company, a Beaufort couple visiting Duke University Hospital and a Cary resident who made a run from his office in Durham to pick up Saltbox for him and his colleagues.
Jessica Pitner, who lives in northern Durham, visits Saltbox about once a month.
“They know how to cook fish,” said Pitner, 59. Pitner doesn’t mind paying a bit more for the seafood, but also didn’t order the soft-shell plate. “Twenty-five dollars is a bit much for lunch.”
Saltbox is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., or until they run out of the menu. On Wednesday, Saltbox ran out of monkfish by about 1 p.m., but customers could still order rock shrimp, catfish, soft shell crab, tuna, salmon or bone-in trout on a roll for $12 to $19 or a plate with slaw salad with lemon dressing and fried potatoes for $14 to $25.
On Wednesday, the orders started coming in around 11:30 a.m. and business remained steady through 3 p.m. Some tried to call in orders, but Moore and his sole employee Kimberly Myers were too busy helping walk-up customers to answer.
Myers manned the windows where customers ordered, paid and picked up food when she called out their name.
In the kitchen, Moore gracefully managed slicing seafood, manning an oven, two fryers and a cast iron grill pan, while dressing plates with fried potatoes and sprinkling them with seasoning.
When Moore was in high school in New Bern, he wanted to be an artist.
“I was going to be the next Charles Schulz,” he said. “I walked around high school with a portfolio all the time.”
Moore earned an arts scholarship to East Carolina University. He got tired of going to school, so he followed his parents’ path and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
The seven-year military journey introduced him to kimchi in Korea, street food in Germany and a plate lunch in Hawaii. As a cook in the military, Moore learned to be organized, how to season food and ensure that it was still delicious no matter the circumstances. Good food, he said, is a morale booster in the Army.
It was also in the Army that Moore realized he could make a living preparing food.
After Moore left the military, he enrolled in culinary school in 1993, which was followed by one to three years stints in various restaurants.
Moore and his family, which now includes his wife and two children, moved to Chapel Hill in 2008.
His goal was to move back to the state where he grew up and to open up his own business, Moore said, but he wanted to get to know the market first.
Moore worked at a Glasshalfull, a small restaurant and wine bar near his home, for about 18 months, and then as the chef at Giorgio in Cary until the restaurant closed after about a year.
“After that, I just kind of stepped back a little bit and reassessed what I wanted to do from a career stand point,” he said.
He didn’t want a food truck. He didn’t want investors. He didn’t want debt.
Moore started watching the small space on Mangum Street, a one-way thoroughfare that leads to downtown Durham.
Moore brought his wife by, and they started to envision a place where people come to pick up some seafood, somewhat modeled after the roadside shacks he stopped at growing up.
Moore said he scouted the Durham building in the morning, afternoon and late at night.
“Just to see the element while I am not there,” he said.
After leasing the space, he repainted the building, cleaned the yard and opened a joint that offered local seafood cooked with a chef’s hand. The menu was written on a chalk board and he was deliberate about his recipes, his philosophy and ingredients.
“Cooking something and really finding the truth of the ingredients,” he said.
He hired an employee after the first month. He managed his costs, followed his business plan and spruced up more and more adding picnic tables and umbrellas. During his first winter, Moore said, he struggled to meet the promise of local seafood as he had challenges sourcing fish from the state’s East Coast.
He eventually changed his tagline from local to seasonal fish.
Moore said he sources from Virginia to South Carolina when the waters are fruitful, but extends the search during dry periods.
In November 2014, he bought a truck for catering which he rolled out in January. The truck now accounts for about 25 percent of his revenue.
In the future, Moore said would like to explore some retail products and maybe additional locations.
During a slow period Wednesday afternoon, a man stopped by Moore’s window and asked to talk about an opportunity in a downtown space.
About twice a month, people approach him with such opportunities.
Moore always investigates, he said, but when it comes time to make a move it will be organic, not because someone else is dangling a carrot he may want to follow.
“It’s going to be coming from me,” Moore said. “That is kind of how I do things.”