A New Wave Of Top Chefs

On his long journey from New Bern farm kid to nationally renowned chef, Ricky Moore saw the world.

He rolled cinnamon buns on a U.S. Army base in Hawaii. He studied French cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and crafted it in the kitchens of four Michelin-starred restaurants. He shopped open-air markets in Singapore. All of it helped inspire Saltbox Seafood Joint, the Durham restaurant he opened in 2012.

Through 30 years of cooking at the highest and lowest ends of the dining spectrum, there was one thing he saw precious little of: Black culinary role models.

“It’s always good to see someone else who looks like you,” said Moore, who is a 2022 finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef: Southeast. “And it was very rare. And I decided that if it’s rare, then maybe I need to be the one.”

In 2022, an aspiring Black chef in North Carolina doesn’t have to look as far for models. They could look to fellow finalist Greg Collier, whose Charlotte restaurant Leah & Louise was named the number-two new restaurant in America in 2020 by Esquire magazine. Or to Ophus Hethington, who was named a Beard Emerging Chef finalist less than a year after becoming chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, an Asheville eatery devoted to exploring African-American culinary heritage. Hethington’s predecessor at Benne, Ashleigh Shanti, was also a 2020 Emerging Chef nominee and recent Top Chef competitor.

Hethington and Collier are part of the largest collection of North Carolina nominees in the 31-year history of the James Beard Foundation Awards, commonly thought of as the Oscars of the food world. Eight N.C. chefs and restaurants will be among the finalists at the June 13 awards ceremony.

Moore’s cooking draws on a wide range of influences, from his eastern North Carolina origins to his experiences as a military kid in Germany and time spent in Paris, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

From those experiences, he learned to do nearly anything in a kitchen. But when he returned to North Carolina, he decided to do just one thing.

“I had a ton of ideas that I could have done,” Moore said. “But that location on Mangum Street felt like a seafood joint. It felt like a lot of places that I grew up going to.”

Moore opened the original Saltbox in a 205-square-foot shack in downtown Durham. Within three years, he’d paid down his startup debts. Within five, he’d opened a second location near Durham’s Rockwood neighborhood. When his lease on the original Saltbox expired last year, Moore consolidated at the newer location.

The Saltbox menu is simple: seasonal fish, rolls, hushpuppies, slaw, fried brussels sprouts, potatoes. But it’s the foundation of Moore’s quest to elevate North Carolina seafood. In addition to his restaurants, he’s made The Hook, a PBS documentary tracing Saltbox’s seafood back to the people who catch it on the N.C. coast. He’s also published a cookbook.

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Top: Saltbox owner Ricky Moore, a 2022 finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef: Southeast. Above: Inside the Saltbox. Photos by Cornell Watson.

“I appreciate barbecue,” Moore said. “Don’t get it twisted. But we have an entire coastline of beautiful seafood, and we don't get mentioned enough for that.”

While Moore is working to change the way North Carolina food is perceived in the future, it’s rooted in a long tradition of fishing among Black Eastern North Carolinians, said author Michael Twitty, who won a Beard Award for Book of the Year in 2018.

“One of the biggest communities of Black fishermen, after Maryland and Louisiana, was in North Carolina,” he said. “These were enslaved people and free people of color who were bringing in the fish, both for eating and for fertilizer.”

Years in the Making

This year marks a return for the Beard Awards, which have been on hiatus since the abrupt cancellation of the 2020 presentation and the entire 2021 awards season.

The hiatus was ostensibly a result of the pandemic, but The New York Times reported in August 2020 that a rash of misconduct allegations against nominated chefs and a dearth of diversity among the honorees also drove the Beard Foundation’s decision. While 2020 winners went unannounced, voting was complete, and the Times reported that there were no Black chefs among the 23 winners. 

Diversity had already been a subject of ongoing debate around the Beard Awards. In 2018, a Mic.com analysis of 28 years of Beard Award nominations found that only five Black chefs had ever made the finalist list for the regional Best Chef or national Outstanding Chef awards.

The Foundation “could see a problem,” said Andrea Weigl, a producer for Markay Media and member of the awards' book judging committee. “They were incrementally trying to address it, and it wasn’t achieving what they wanted to achieve.”

The Foundation commissioned an audit of its award process, which led to a set of reforms that included diluting the voting power of past winners, a group largely comprised of white men; reducing entry fees; creating a network of scouts to dig deeper for worthy chefs; and setting a goal that 50 percent of awards committee members and judges be Black, indigenous, or people of color by 2023.

This year, representation of Black chefs is up. Thirteen of the 92 finalists for the 2022 restaurant and chef awards are African American, bringing the Beard Awards more into line with the reality of who runs restaurant kitchens in America. (About 15 percent of chefs and head cooks in the U.S. are Black, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

And no state has more Black finalists this year than North Carolina. 

“It’s about time that African Americans who are culinary experts, who also bring to that restaurant experience a respect for their own roots and sense of home, are honored,” Twitty said.

Paying It Forward—and Back

Greg Collier spent years acquiring skills in other people’s restaurants before settling on a concept that fit his vision. 

At Charlotte restaurants Loft & Cellar and Uptown Yolk, he earned a following and Best Chef: Southeast semifinalist nods from the Beard Foundation in 2019 and 2020. While Uptown Yolk was Collier’s own restaurant, its focus on breakfast food never felt like a full expression of who he was, where’d come from, or what he believed.

After nearly 20 years in the business, he found a place to tell his story. 

Or rather, he and his wife, Subrina Collier, made that place: Leah & Louise, a restaurant named for his sister and grandmother, respectively, and devoted to the foods he grew up on in Memphis, Tennessee. Greg’s kitchen would serve up his signature dishes—fish and grits, roasted cabbage, an oatmeal-cookie-crust-and-Tang pie—while Subrina would keep the customers happy and manage the hosting and wait staff.

With the opening a few days away, the Colliers were cruising through the last few pre-launch rituals: a night of dinner service for friends and family, a preview for the media. 

It was early March, 2020.

“I was so confident,” Greg said. “This was the first time I’d get to say what I want to say, food-wise. And then we had to close down for three months.”

But some unexpected things happened in those early months of the pandemic. Banks that had previously passed on their applications now extended loans from federal and state COVID-19 relief funds. The Colliers used the money to help train restaurant staff, and it also enabled them to offer salaries of $18 to $23 an hour.

With no dinner rushes to prep for, the Colliers got their first break in years.

“It made us pause, and it made us think about why we were doing what we were doing,” Collier said. “And we doubled down on our culture. We doubled down on being stewards of the hospitality industry and making way for younger folks.”

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Greg and Subrina Collier, owners of Leah & Louise. Photos by Peter Taylor Photography

The Colliers take those responsibilities seriously. In 2016, Greg joined four other Black chefs in founding the Soul Food Sessions, an ongoing pop-up dinner series where local and guest Black chefs apply fine-dining techniques to traditional soul-food ingredients. 

He and Subrina have also launched the Bay Haven Restaurant Group and announced plans to open four new restaurants in Charlotte, two of them helmed by former Leah & Louise staffers. Their Bay Haven Food & Wine Festival, which celebrates Black and diasporic food traditions, will return for a second year in October.

Greg is also an active mentor to younger Black chefs, several of whom now work at Leah & Louise. 

The Colliers “are really creating a space in the state and a platform in the state for African American chefs,” said Andrea Weigl, who spent 10 years covering the N.C. food scene for The News & Observer.

Collier’s culinary philosophy comes together in one of Leah & Louise’s best-loved dishes: Mud Island, a catfish-and-grits entree named for a park near downtown Memphis. It starts with the grits, cooked for several hours in smoked catfish stock “to get as much flavor and creaming in them as possible.” Next, add the catfish, rubbed with Cajun spices and blackened on the grill. Finish with dehydrated Fresno peppers and pickled field peas.

“That dish is when I finally figured out what my flavor profile is,” Collier said. “My cookery is smoke, sweet, salt, and acid. And that’s Memphis barbecue.”

A New Take on Timeless Traditions

Today, Ophus Hethington is unearthing the African roots of a range of regional cuisines. But 11 years ago, he was still trying to find his way into the kitchen. 

After stints in the military and time spent working in public health in Miami, Hethington was just trying to get his first restaurant job. He remembers applying to Chili’s, The Cheesecake Factory, and every other restaurant that was hiring. 

He landed an unpaid internship at Yardbird, a then-new restaurant in Miami that would later earn its own Beard nominations for its take on Southern cuisine. For four months, he worked days at his hospital job and nights on the Yardbird food-prep team. He then spent any free time hanging around the kitchen.

“Chefs would be running me out of the kitchen sometimes, because I’d been there all day,” Hethington said. “If I heard they were breaking down a whole hog or had a swordfish coming in, I’d just show up and learn.”

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Ophus Hethington, a Beard Emerging Chef finalist. Photos by Mike Belleme.

Yardbird gave him a new perspective on the food he’d been helping prep since cleaning collard greens for his grandmother. As the only Black line cook there, Hethington said, he got a window into “the white side of Southern food.”

Hethington also sought a deeper understanding of Southern food’s African roots. He read Jessica B. Harris’ High on the Hog and started a correspondence with her, along with fellow African American food writers Adrian Miller and Michael Twitty. He saw more clearly how African traditions had shaped the Latin and Caribbean foods and cultures he had grown up around in South Florida.

Exploring the cuisines of the African diaspora became the animating idea behind Hethington’s cooking. One emblematic menu from Ębí Chop Bar, Hethington’s award-winning 2019 dinner series in Atlanta, featured Trinidadian curried chickpeas; “red red,” a Ghanaian stew of black-eyed peas and plantains; and a sorbet sandwich of cassava and mamey sapote, fruits indigenous to Central America.

“Most of us Black Americans think we are the be-all, end-all of Black culture,” he said. “A lot of us don’t even realize that we’re damn near one percent of people of Afro descent on this Earth.” 

As Hethington carried his popups up and down the East Coast, chefs John Fleer and Ashleigh Shanti were excavating the bedrock of Southern cooking in Asheville’s Benne on Eagle. The restaurant sits in the Block, a downtown neighborhood known for Black-owned businesses and clubs.

Developers approached Fleer, the owner of Asheville fixture Rhubarb, about being part of the project in 2017. He was interested in helping to restore the building in a way that respected and elevated the neighborhood’s history.

Shanti was Benne’s first chef de cuisine, and made the restaurant a “beacon of light for Black food,” Hethington said. It’s what drew him to Asheville in August 2021. Eight months later, a nomination for the Beard Foundation’s Emerging Chef Award validated that decision.

“I never thought I would get an opportunity to cook food the way I did in my pop-ups,” he said. “Completely unadulterated, unaltered, not told how or when or what I need to do.”

Hethington’s most characteristic dish is a simple showcase of diasporic traditions: plantains, beans, and rice.

“Plantains are a staple on the table, growing up in Miami,” Hethington said. And rice and beans “is a representation of just every minority culture, whether you’re east Asian or you’re Hispanic or you’re Black.”

In Hethington’s version, the sweet plantains get fried with palm oil, ginger, and garlic and paired with fermented black beans cooked Cuban-style with sour orange and oregano. It’s topped with a housemade rice cracker and a spice mix that includes dehydrated collard greens.

“I always tell every server here at Benne, ‘I want you to get one of those on every table, every night,’” Hethington said.

In late May, Hethington notified Benne management that he would be leaving the restaurant later this summer. His exit follows a change in management at the restaurant, though Larry Crosby, general manager of The Foundry, the hotel that owns Benne, said there are no plans to change the restaurant’s concept.

Hethington’s long-term plans are unclear, but he said his immediate focus will be the Ębí Chop Bar pop-ups, possibly in Asheville or Charlotte.

North Carolina’s Rise

This year’s Beard Awards are a moment of recognition, not just for the state’s chefs of color, but also for the North Carolina food scene at large.

The Tar Heel presence will be bigger than ever, with finalists in four national award categories: Outstanding Restaurant, Outstanding Hospitality, Emerging Chef, and Outstanding Bar Program. A record four of the five nominees for Best Chef: Southeast are from North Carolina.

It’s a new high on a 20-plus-year climb for the state’s culinary journey. N.C. natives like Ben and Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill in Durham, Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, and Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner in Raleigh shaped the first wave, but many of the current standard bearers came here from elsewhere.

The things that drew them here are as varied as the state itself.

Cheetie Kumar, up for Best Chef: Southeast, and Shannon Healy, owner of the Outstanding Bar Program finalist Alley Twenty Six, came in the 1990s, pulled by the independent rock scene then centered in Chapel Hill. 

Healy came from Florida, looking to halve his band’s bus trips to New York City. They kept gigging at Local 506, The Cave, and other clubs, but by 2000 he’d started at the venerable Crook’s Corner. Within months he was managing the restaurant’s wine program, and found his future. He opened Alley Twenty Six in Durham in 2012, which is now the first Outstanding Bar Program finalist North Carolina has ever produced.

Kumar, a Best Chef: Southeast finalist for the second time, came to Raleigh from New York City to manage bands and still plays guitar in the rock group Birds of Avalon. As a child, she’d been sous chef to a mother who never used cookbooks. But as a touring musician, she’d always carried a few on the road and practiced their recipes between shows.

In 2014, that pastime became Garland, a restaurant that melds flavors from Asia and India with local ingredients. Strolling through the State Farmers Market, she found mustard greens, okra, purple-top turnips—vegetables she remembered buying with her family at markets in northern India.

“You could just build your entire restaurant on going to that market every day and cooking from it,” she said. “That in itself is such an incredible gift."

Meherwan Irani’s restaurant Chai Pani, nominated in the national Outstanding Restaurant category, launched in 2009 after the Great Recession “obliterated” Irani’s career selling luxury cars in the San Francisco Bay area. He’d long dreamed of opening a restaurant, and Asheville recalled some of what he’d loved about his previous home.

“I would joke that it felt like somebody took seven or eight city blocks out of Berkeley from the ’80s and dumped it in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” he said. 

The city also drew Katie Button, chef-owner of the tapas bar Cúrate. After working for eminent chef José Andrés in Washington, D.C., and at the Michelin-starred El Bulli in Spain, she and her husband Félix Meana knew they wanted to open a restaurant with family. But they didn’t know where.

Button had grown up in Conway, S.C., and the Southeast felt like home to her. “We just had this immediate connection to Asheville,” said Button, a Best Chef: Southeast finalist for the fourth time. “The vibrant downtown, the river and the mountains, the musicians, the breweries, the artists.” Cúrate is also an Outstanding Hospitality nominee.

This group of chefs and restaurateurs is bigger and more diverse than the North Carolina contingents that preceded them at the Beard Awards. But they have ties to those earlier groups. Healy got his start at Crook’s. Kumar counts Christensen among her friends and inspirations. Moore and Smith have bonded over their New Bern roots and their shared quest to elevate Eastern North Carolina cuisine.

“There was always a steady drumbeat of North Carolina representation,” said Weigl. “And I think we’re seeing the fruition of that 15- or 20-year drumbeat.” 

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Jimmy Ryals is a writer based in Raleigh. A Kinston native, his work has appeared in Slate, several eastern North Carolina newspapers, and little notes in his kids' lunchboxes. You can see more of his writing here.