Don’t be afraid of fish.
If there’s one philosophy Durham chef Ricky Moore has spread for the last decade, it’s that. Don’t be afraid of the fish with the funny names, the ones with the bones, the ones you’ve never thought to eat before.
With his two locations of Saltbox Seafood Joint, modern fish shacks, Moore has spread the gospel of croaker and spot, mackerel and fish collars, changing hearts and minds about what’s possible with fried fish.
“There’s more to North Carolina seafood than flounder, shrimp and oysters,” Moore said recently in an interview. “Those are great, but there are so many others — the bone fish, croaker, spot, bluefish — if you see them on a menu, don’t be afraid to order it.”
Moore and publisher UNC Press are set to release the chef’s first cookbook, “The Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook,” named after his popular restaurants. The book already has been named one of Garden & Gun’s “Favorite Fall Cookbooks.”
“It’s a small book that speaks to [the area] from whence I came,” Moore said. “It’s really the history of a person growing up in Eastern North Carolina, on the coast ... the stories and people are connected with recipes.”
Moore grew up near New Bern. He enlisted in the Army at 18 and served eight years in the military, where he met his wife, Norma. He went on to graduate from one of the country’s elite cooking schools, The Culinary Institute of America, later cooking at New York’s celebrated Daniel and for the late chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago.
The search for a fish sandwich
In the book, Moore says he started Saltbox after the couple moved back to North Carolina. Norma asked a simple question: Where could they get a good fish sandwich? They couldn’t find a good answer in the Triangle.
So, Saltbox was born, first as a 200-square-foot shack on Mangum Street in Durham. It’s since expanded to include a catering food truck and a larger counter service restaurant on Chapel Hill-Durham Boulevard.
“It can be intimidating to cook fish,” Moore said. “But this book is home cook friendly. The goal was for people to use this book as a tool to give them confidence.”
Fried fish is beloved in North Carolina, but it’s hard to say it’s respected. The ubiquitous flounder, breaded and deep fried, served alongside spherical hush puppies and fries, often ends up having little to do with fish or the sea.
Moore said he grew up on fish fries, but Saltbox reached for the reverence usually given to Japanese techniques like tempura. For his fried fish rolls, the coating is light but heavily seasoned and topped with a vinegary slaw that Moore said takes most of its inspiration from a relish. The fish is always the star.
“Why can’t the Eastern North Carolina seafood fry be put in the same reverence of tempura?” Moore said. “I spent time in Japan, and tempura the fry is almost invisible, but there’s still that crunch and texture. At the end of the day, it’s still fried, man. I took that same behavior and mindset to Saltbox.”
In writing his first cookbook, Moore said he drew on advice from many of the region’s acclaimed food writers: Sheri Castle, Bill Smith, Nancie McDermott and Marcie Cohen Ferris. Moore wrote the book with local food writer K.C. Hysmith.
The book features recipes and techniques for frying, but also for making fish stews, chowders and side dishes like grits and Saltbox’s famous and trademarked “Hush-Honeys,” a version of hush puppies with hot sauce and honey.
Saltbox’s menu changes daily, depending on the whims of the sea and the successes of coastal fishermen. Moore said he wanted to tell his own story, as well as that of the restaurant. But the book reflects on the state’s relationship to the sea as well — the species found in North Carolina waters and the traditions connecting waterways and people.
“There are tons of culinary traditions and foodways we should be fond of and proud to showcase,” Moore said.
New TV show
Moore is also the host of a new PBS special called “The Hook,” focusing on North Carolina’s coastal history and fishermen and paying homage to the bonefish species. The half-hour show is produced by Durham’s Markay Media, makers of Vivian Howard’s award-winning docu-series “A Chef’s Life.”
“The Hook” is directed by Saleem Reshamwala and Shirlette Ammons.
“It’s me going around the coast and talking to people and digging up the history and cooking the food of the region,” Moore said. “We’re really focused on the bonefish, the croaker, spot and bluefish, the species consumers are not culturally conditioned to eat.”
“The Hook” will premiere on UNC-TV on Oct. 17 at 10 p.m., but there will be a free screening on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. at Durham music venue Motorco.
Moore is also doing a book tour for the Saltbox cookbook, with stops at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village at 2 p.m. on Oct. 26; at Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m.; and Durham’s Golden Fig Books on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m.