INTRO – Eating out in North Carolina has changed in recent decades. The franchise restaurants and local family-style establishments have been with us for multiple decades and remain with us. But a newer style of dining has taken root in the state that emphasizes its ties WITH the state. A new book by one of the state’s most prolific restaurant reviewers takes a look at that trend. George Olsen has more.
The following is an experience you will not have if you visit any of the restaurants highlighted in the new book “Chefs of the Coast… Restaurants & Recipes from the North Carolina Coast.”
“One of the chefs mentioned that when he got out of culinary school he was really proud of himself because he got a job at a big, big name restaurant in Myrtle Beach and he said this is the big time, I’m starting out right, and then he said he spent the first year microwaving frozen brownies.”
John Batchelor, the restaurant reviewer for the Greensboro News & Record and the author of “Chefs of the Coast.” The more typical food you’ll be served by the chefs highlighted in the book is as follows.
“Another good quote that I remember was “the average vegetable served in the United States has travelled a thousand miles. In my restaurant every potato served was in the ground yesterday. Guess which one tastes better? Guess which ones are healthier?”
That is the type of restaurant that Batchelor features in “Chefs of the Coast.” In it Batchelor talks with around 50 chefs from coastal establishments… the Outer Banks, Beaufort, New Bern, Wilmington, Morehead City. It’s the 2nd in an expected trilogy of books… “Chefs of the Mountains” was published in 2012, “Chefs of the Piedmont” to be determined. Batchelor has been writing restaurant reviews for nearly 35 years… he says he has written over 1000 reviews since his start in 1981… so when he started considering “Chefs of the Coast” he had around 100 restaurants in mind before he winnowed the list down.
“I had a series of screening criteria that I used. In general, fresh ingredients, scratch cooking, nothing pre-packaged, nothing frozen, primarily from NC farmers and from I would say NC seafood except one of the things I learned is that fish don’t know where the state line is so I’ll say southern coast seafood. The fish migrate across the Virginia line, across the South Carolina line, but primarily NC seafood providers although they might catch the fish in NC/SC/VA waters.”
In other words, not a microwaved brownie in sight. These restaurants are part of a growing culinary trend in the state. My remembrance of restaurants 20-to-30 years ago in North Carolina… and Batchelor concurred on this… is they were essentially “deep fried and family style.” That still exists, but a move toward fresh local ingredients is a nationwide trend during that same period. And the “deep fried and family style” food has a part in this culinary movement as well.
“We’ve become a foodie nation, a culinary destination, and I think the mountains of NC… well, I think the state of NC, it’s not just the coast and mountains, it’s the piedmont as well, has a remarkable number of very fine restaurants, not to mention an awful lot of very fine home cooks. I think another thing we’re seeing valued that’s come all the way around is what I grew up with in my family, southern cooking, is now becoming very valued in restaurants and that’s another genre that’s developing in a more formal manner. People are beginning to realize just how good that food is. I would argue that good quality southern fried chicken ranks right up there with anything you can get in the world in terms of good eating.”
But to ensure good eating, good ingredients are necessary. In the words of one of the chef’s interviewed for the book, in language cleaned up for a radio audience…
“you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers, I don’t care how good the feathers are.”
Batchelor agrees with the idea that contacts made to finding and working with local farmers and fishermen is every bit as important as what happens inside the kitchen. With that in mind, some of the markets that supply the restaurants are featured in “Chefs of the Coast” … suppliers who have risen to the challenge laid down by the new culinary trends.
“I think as far as the suppliers are concerned, they are now catching, providing, delivering a wider variety of seafood and people are buying and chefs are buying and people are ordering off menus that include types of fish that were never seen on menus 20-or-30 years ago in NC. In terms of produce in general, farmers are taking extra care to grow and provide vegetables that, again, you never saw 20-30 years ago, higher quality.”
The chefs featured in the book are taking that higher quality fish, pork, beef and produce and running with it. And they’re occasionally taking items off the shelf and using them to provide a unique local product… witness the “Pepsi-brined Pork” from Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant in New Bern.
“That came about because the chef in New Bern was conscious of the local history and was deliberately looking for a recipe that he could use that would capitalize on the fact Pepsi originated in New Bern, and he experimented and came up with that idea, and it’s really tasty. I’ve actually had in some of the chef’s competitions sauces that were made with Cheerwine and Pepsi. They were really tasty.”
But that’s about as close to pre-packaged anything you’ll get with the recipes found in “Chefs of the Coast.” Most of the restaurants featured in the book have relatively intimate seating. Just a few seat over 100. One of those is Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café in Nags Head which can seat well in excess of 300. That many tables screams for shortcuts… something frozen, something prepared. But in the battle cry of a new way of eating across the state exemplified in “Chefs of the Coast,” no way, no how.
“Chef Bud Gruninger commented to me that even though we are a high volume restaurant, and I’m quoting him, I have not bought a dressed fish in 15 years. There’s a building on the property and there are guys whose full-time job is dressing fish, shucking oysters and dressing out vegetables. Everything we serve in this restaurant is fresh… and I think that’s phenomenal for a volume restaurant.”
John Batchelor resides in Greensboro where he is the restaurant reviewer for the Greensboro News & Record. His new book “Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants & Recipes of the North Carolina Coast” is published by John F. Blair. I’m George Olsen.