A Conversation with Chef Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood

Chef Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood in Durham

If ever anyone was known as a seafood purist, it’s Ricky Moore. Owner of two Saltbox Seafood Joint locations in Durham, the former U.S. Army cook and New Bern, N.C., native keeps frying up fish and reeling in hungry patrons. Earlier this year, the esteemed James Beard Foundation selected Moore as a semifinalist for the regional Best Chef: Southeast award. 

Cary Magazine caught up with Moore by phone recently for an enlightening conversation. 

It goes without saying, but these are difficult days for everyone. How are you and your restaurants holding up? 

Thankfully we were able to adjust pretty quickly amid the crisis. The original location is a walkup (place), but the second restaurant is bigger, so we pivoted to just doing takeout. Online ordering has been a lifesaver. We’re bare bones right now, with just a core team. My mindset is to re-craft and rework, and we’ve become nimble. 

What are the most challenging issues you’ve encountered?

Fried fish does not sustain as well when it’s in to-go containers, but we do what we have to do. I decided early on that if grocery stores and fast food restaurants are open, I’m going to be open. The lifeblood of a restaurant is the consumers, so whenever there’s fear and uncertainty, what do you do to create a sense of security? We want to make sure people feel confident that we are taking care of business and not half-stepping it when it comes to keeping things safe. 

Ricky Moore with a whole fish

For the person reading this who has not visited Saltbox yet, what would you say to encourage them to drive over to Durham and check it out? 

We’re a regional eatery that’s supporting North Carolina fishermen and fisherwomen. We partner directly and indirectly with people in a dying industry. There’s a huge resource at our coastline that I believe we don’t tap into enough, and we’re trying to educate people on the seasonality and variety of North Carolina seafood. If you like flounder and shrimp, that’s fine, but every now and again venture off and try some triggerfish, amberjack, mullet, croaker, spot and butterfish. I’m just trying to do some righteous things. Come on out.

An important issue facing our country these days involves racial injustice. As you’ve watched recent events unfold, how have you been affected? 

This pandemic has exposed a lot of ills. For me, as a black man in this country, there are some behaviors and cultural conditioning that I have experienced in my life. We all know the historical context of racial injustice, and now we have to deal with it together. As citizens of this country, we are all accountable for calling stuff out and making sure that we are not silent. … It’s about fairness, accountability and justice for everybody. I’m an optimist, and I firmly believe as a country we can move forward and get this done. 

Get Hooked on the Cookbook

Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook (UNC Press) features 60 of chef Moore’s recipes that reveal how to prepare fish, chowders, stews, grits and even his trademark Hush-Honeys hushpuppies. It’s available on Amazon, IndieBound.org and UNC Press

Let’s talk about something less intense. Do you consider your new cookbook a manual for preparing seafood? 

It’s a cookbook that is eastern and coastal Carolina centric. For me, it’s a starting point for referencing North Carolina as a regional seafood mecca. There is a lot of history behind regional dishes. We need to talk more about our coastal heritage and how seafood fits into it. 

Your documentary-style UNC-TV series “The Hook” is outstanding. Is that an ongoing project? 

It was scheduled to air prior to the pandemic, but a lot depends on viewership and sponsorship. I’m hopeful it can keep going. (Watch it on the restaurant’s website or at https://video.unctv.org/video/the-hook-uoct2b/)


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