Wilmington's Food Infancy

We get a lot of people that come through our doors from various areas - both local and afar - and we are constantly asked about our food area and places to eat beyond our establishment.  The question always gives us pause, even hesitation, before answering.  And invariably, always has me wanting to cast a caveat explanation - so I will do it here, at our own risk. 

It isn't that there isn't good food here in this town.  And it isn't that the same pitfalls (hit or miss service, inconsistent food quality) that ail some of our great food destinations regionally (Asheville, Raleigh, Richmond, Charleston) don't occur.  I mean, sometimes a server has a bad night, sometimes the kitchen is understaffed on a shift. "Trainwrecks" happen - even to us.  Every restaurant, even the ones with regional celebrity chefs, have a constant challenge of balancing performance with profitability.  BUT, what about the food?  Ahhh, yes, the food.  Well, here is the thing:  Wilmington just isn't that good yet.  

There are countless reasons why. 

For one, the talent level - while good - isn't nearly high enough.  And when it is, it is too often misguided or so wrapped in itself, that it gets steered away from improving its own kitchen and menu.    Don't get me wrong, it's very challenging developing a menu each week/month/season that tests your hourly talent, forces your own progress, and appeals to (and simultaneously challenges) your guests' palates.  But to be great in this industry, to make regional - or more ambitious - headlines with your food, you have to be willing to force the issue.  In Wilmington, there are too many easy ways out.  And too often, the chefs and restaurants in this town, are too willing to abide.

Another contributing factor limiting this area's food prominence is the area magazines/publications/news and their writers/reviewers. There is no critical element to most of the food reviews of every restaurant in this area.  Most, if not all, are aimed at a "social share" approach that looks to align itself as a partner with the establishment (at times for future advertising/marketing/business propositions), more than a critique of food, service, or the experience.  "Give the readers information, let them decide."  "Give the establishment exposure, if they succeed - hopefully they will in-turn do advertising with us."  Some of the areas publications' approach is more direct: "if you do advertising with us, we will write a feature article on you."  Paid press rarely advances a kitchen or a chef.  A non-challenging review(er) of an establishment isn't the reason for bad food, it isn't the reason for stagnating a city's food growth, but it does reinforce a sense of a homogeneous cuisine, where if all are good, then none are great. 

The biggest reason for Wilmington's shortfall here is "time".  Good kitchens/chefs take years to develop.  Great kitchens take longer.  The restaurant turnover in this town is, like other cities, brutal.  There are a few seedlings in place, but hardly any that root.

Look, I desperately want this city to have better food - to have better restaurants that move our great little city into a great food town. There are restaurants with potential here. I have eaten at all of them.  All the highly praised/highly reputable and all the "most popular".  There is only one or two I would recommend, and the great meals I have there are rare.

So, in short, don't be surprised when you have "hit and miss" experiences in this town for food.  We are in our food infancy in this town, but we are working everyday to grow.   What we need is a few more critical voices (beyond the yelpers and tripvisor variety) to reinvigorate complacent cooks bent on being "chefs". 

Who's the "Chef"?

This sums it up perfectly, and I thought it merited a re-post for our work here.

COPIED AS WRITTEN BY EDWARD LEE, for Esquire Magazine

"People are growing weary of the word “chef.” Lately, it’s been used to sell everything from canned soup to fast food pizza. Some argue it’s no different than using the word to raise cooking show ratings. There are others who think the word is a by-product of an exclusionary boy’s club and then those who just think it is self-ingratiating. I’m no purist who bemoans the days when being a “chef” really meant something, but I cringe at articles like the one written by the usually brilliant Robert Sietsema who protests against having to address cooks with the honorific “chef.”

I apprenticed in kitchens during a time when the word was reserved for the utmost reverence and authority. It was a word I coveted and feared. Without having gone to cooking school, I never got handed a degree with my name on it. So for me, working my knuckles to the bone was my way of earning the right to be called a chef. And I still believe that the title of “Chef” represents the highest form of professional craftsmanship and artistic expression.

The irony now is I don’t care what people call me—as long as it’s not asshole. I don’t insist—and honestly, I don’t know any chef who does—that people refer to me as “Chef.” It happens, and that’s fine. To my cooks, it is a form of respect. And for the general public, they get a kick out of it. Who am I to be contrarian? But what is left of the word now that we’ve exhausted it?

The National Restaurant Association counts 980,000 restaurants in the United States. That’s a lot of cooks out there. I started to think about my own dumb, idealized definition of the word “chef” and realized how little it involves the vast majority of hard working people in the food service industry. But they aren’t chefs—you say. I guess not. I guess to someone like Sietsema, a caterer is not a chef—just an insignificant part of the uninspired food industrial complex. Like the deli counter girl and the Applebee’s cooks. But holy crap, that’s really elitist. I am lucky. I get to have my little restaurant in the middle of nowhere and cook the expressionist cuisine that I want to cook and don’t give a damn if it meets anyone’s expectations or not. But not everyone gets to do that. In fact, a rarefied few will ever make that leap. So all the other people who prepare food for a living—are they not chefs? Or are they just cooks? Who gets to determine which ones are ordained?

Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life have been at the hands of wonderful home cooks. But I wouldn’t call them chefs. Not unless you’ve ever spent the afternoon pumping out a clogged grease trap or woken up in the middle of the night questioning if you left the fish order on the meat phone line and vice-versa, or ever looked into the eyes of a young hapless cook and crushed his dreams. That’s what a chef does. Amongst many other hats. There are those that are brilliant at it, others just mediocre. But to me, they are all chefs. They fill a need: they feed the vast, bottomless appetite of the American public.

Recently, I was stuck in the Chicago airport after a series of flight delays. I sat at a bar and ordered chili, a quesadilla, and a beer. The place was getting crushed. Everyone who couldn’t leave the airport decided they would take their pissed off attitude to this restaurant and get mad about the overpriced food. From where I sat, I could see a chef in the kitchen getting his ass handed to him, getting deeper and deeper into some wilderness of weeds with each passing minute. My food took a while and there was nothing “gourmet” about it, but my quesadilla was crispy, the cheese was melty, and the chili had just the right amount of sour cream on top. It made me feel good when all I wanted to do was be pissed off.

After the push, the chef came out looking pretty beat up. His cheeks were ruddy from an unhealthy rise in blood pressure. His breathing was forced and he had that familiar hunched over stance as he sucked down a quart container of ice water while looking off into the distance. As I left the bar, I turned to him and gave him a quick but earnest, “Thanks, Chef.” He didn’t speak English, but he perked up for a moment with a professional nod and a smile before heading back into that warzone of a kitchen."

 ----  ONCE AGAIN, PERFECTLY STATED.  Thanks Chef.

Growth and Mentors.

Our kitchen team is a makeup of individuals that bring a range of talents to what we do here.  I am our main protagonist and lead our motley crew. I didn't attended culinary school, but have had the immense fortune of having being exposed to a few culinary mentors that have shaped how I develop my education in food.  Among them are Joe DePaola, Jimmy Sneed, Chris Ripp, and Lee Gregory - each for different reasons. Joe is a current Chef/Instructor at CIA, The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.  He and I sat in an office and test kitchen together for a full year while I watched him develop and write recipes, for subsequent test-kitchen experimentation.  He wasn't an instructor at CIA then, but he was most definitely a teacher.  He came through Gramercy Tavern in NYC and worked closely with Tom Colicchio before the Top Chef years.  Joe was obsessive about details and a passionate cook, but mostly he cared about people. I soaked in everything I could from him and to this day is the most enjoyable person with whom I have ever worked in a kitchen. 

Chris Ripp is the Proprietor/Chef at Can Can Brasserie in RVA. He assembled an all-star team for its opening that included a number of prized NYC talent. Somehow, I was lucky enough to be hired to assist in opening that establishment with that group.  Chris sent me to New York to stage at Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Craft (Tom Colicchio's newest project at that time).  That experience being in the kitchen with Tom Colicchio, being exposed to Danny Meyer's Hospitality Group seedlings that were set to literally dominate the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards for the next decade, changed me forever.  While Chris and I didn't share the same approach to many things, we did share an absolute appreciation for the highest levels of quality in this business.

Jimmy Sneed and I shared the same sense of humor and vocabulary.  Thankfully, that led me to a unique position close to him in a couple of his forays into Richmond restaurants.  He semi-paid me as a consultant, I semi-worked for him in that vein, and he always fed me lunch (occasionally dinner) and told me stories of his experience and instincts. Again, and again. Jimmy never stuck around for long and so I can only profess short lived exposure to him, but he is a brilliant chef, and I stole every second of time he allowed me.  An early lesson for me from him was simple: Don't screw up good ingredients. Get out of the damn way.

Lee Gregory is a James Beard nominated Chef, that if he wanted to, could be famous.  I was lucky enough to be able to consult for one of the restaurants in RVA that he helmed.  Lee didn't need my help.  Lee's food was, and is, the best food I have ever eaten.  And I was fortunate to sit with him on occasions and watch him explain his process in menu and recipe and just talk "shop". Currently, he is the co-owner and Chef at the heralded restaurant The Roosevelt in Church Hill, a neighborhood of Richmond, VA. His approach to food is so without pretension that it can be mistaken for simple at times. Therein lies his brilliance.  Lee is above all a family man, who happens to be a brilliant chef. 

In addition to these there are many that I rely on to continue to teach me and develop as a business owner, a cook, and to give our guests the best restaurant experience possible - they of course extend to my family & friends, both in and out of the industry, and our tireless farmers and fishermen.  But these, if there had to be any, are the mentors that have helped me build what I know of professional food and of professional kitchens.

Our Food.

support fishermen

We have changed a lot over the years at our little shop.  Our kitchen has become the epicenter and reason for that change as we have continued to immerse ourselves in a continual education of our food, our environment, our families & friends, our staff and our community.   In all of it, "food" is such a common unifier and critical element of who we are.

Sustainable food is becoming more and more important in the telling of that story and the experience for our guests.  For us as a restaurant, I decided that it was critically important to be able to tell our community the food we were feeding them was good for them, but even more importantly to be able to tell them from where it came.  "What am I feeding my community?" matters as a question, and I feel responsible to answer.  Not in some metaphysical quest, but just in how we operate our kitchen each day. 

To that end, sustainable food is our mantra. 

Simply put, it is food sourced from farmers, fishermen, purveyors, and individuals who share a common philosophy of providing food that in harvesting, does the least harm to our environment, with minimal impact to other species of fish or animal, and is done in the most ethical manner possible. 

I will elaborate on this in future post I am certain, but it means that I know where every item you will eat in this restaurant comes from - I know which waters the Mahi was caught; I know it was fished in a manner that didn't create unnecessary "by-catch" (other fish caught in the process and discarded as useless); I know where the goats graze, and often what they eat, of the goat cheese on your salad; I know the farmer and the farm who provides the beef for your cheeseburger. 

We approach how we do food here with this reasoning because we know it is the best product we can provide and that it is the healthiest option that we can put on your plate.  It will nourish our guests. It requires we cook with the seasons and change our menus based on the availability of ingredients. 

I love working with food.  I feel privileged to be a part of a chain that nourishes our community through a small part of their day in meals they eat in this restaurant.  Meals that came from local and regional ingredients planted by farmers, harvested by fishermen, and delivered to us to craft into a dish just for you.  Every morning we walk in our kitchen and turn on the lights and plan our day, considers that path, and works to make it the best meal you have today.