Flavor Memories: Local chefs talk childhood dishes that inspire them

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Several years ago I submitted an application for a national cookbook competition held by the world’s most well-known food television personality. I focused my potential book on a theme I called “Tastes like Childhood,” and I’ll never forget that shaky, surreal moment on the Riverwalk when my cell phone rang and Rachael Ray was on the other end.

“You’re in,” she said.

I made the top five.

My concept wasn’t groundbreaking. I knew it; she knew it. It was simply a universal idea that everyone could relate to. After several rounds of televised competition, I won the grand prize. I spent the next few years manifesting a recipe scrapbook of my life that recreated and told the anecdotes of my deliciously weird youth (embarrassing photos included).

As I dug into my thoughts for the fall edition of Devour, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of our beloved Wilmington chefs had similar stories to tell. I know firsthand that foodies don’t just sprout out of nowhere. We’re often sparked by mouth-watering memories that have stuck with us though our food-obsessed lives. So I set out on a mission to discover which nostalgic flavors “tasted like childhood” for our town’s most renowned culinarians. Most importantly: What would those dishes look like today?

                       

Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a boy to fish, and he’ll eventually be featured in Southern Living Magazine. I asked PinPoint’s chef, Dean Neff, to evoke one of his most cherished food moments, and an earnest grin—about as wide as a 6-foot bluefish—unfolded across his face. I later sat down to reflect on our seafood-centric conversation, but couldn’t stop his words “sweet jorts” from ringing in my ears.

PLAYING HOOKY: Dean Neff hooking the daily catch at Wrightsville Beach, just like in the days of his youth Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

PLAYING HOOKY: Dean Neff hooking the daily catch at Wrightsville Beach, just like in the days of his youth Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

As a kid who wore sweet jorts and happily devoured sardines, this Georgia boy never has been a stranger to the ocean’s bounty. In fact, his earliest recollection of reeling in (and dishing out) fresh catch stems from the very picture illustrated on the previous page, showcasing his first seaside score. Some might see the vintage snapshot of a proud fisher-boy on Tybee Island as nothing more than a vacation memory. But for Neff the precious moment caught in time laid the groundwork for what would ultimately be his life’s calling. From one flavorful burst of words to another, Neff reminisced on the original preparation that took place once the shutter lens closed.

Neff as a child. Courtesy photo

Neff as a child. Courtesy photo

“Seared, broiled, lemon, black pepper, butter,” he noted.

From that point on, he was hooked.

Diners can literally taste his passion in every bite of the thoughtfully prepared food he creates at PinPoint. To pay homage to his first salt-water victory—and his childhood neighborhood’s signature scent (burning pine needles)—Neff serves an eclectic composition of grilled and pine-straw-smoked bluefish with tangy shrimp escabeche, citrus radish, roasted peanut Romesco, and charred shishito peppers, with lemon-herb vinaigrette. As the youngest of four, Neff found his happy place in front of the stove to fuse whatever ingredients he could find. Although he admits some of these early attempts may not be as masterful as PinPoint’s local beef tartare with soy-pickled beech mushrooms and caper aioli his customers go gaga for, his fire was lit nonetheless.

                       

In an extra tall highball glass, combine one-part Southern homeboy with two parts rock star and a dash of local seafood. Shake, strain, and garnish with sliced tomatoes. I call this concoction: One Bad Chef.

“All of my parents and grandparents have been gone for 20 plus years,” Catch’s restaurateur and chef, Keith Rhodes, said. “This meal brings me back to their company.”

PULL UP A SEAT: Keith Rhodes taking a seat in his restaurant, Catch, instead of at his family’s kitchen table, like he did in childhood.

PULL UP A SEAT: Keith Rhodes taking a seat in his restaurant, Catch, instead of at his family’s kitchen table, like he did in childhood. Photo by Lindsey Miller Photography

I watched the glow in Rhodes’ kind eyes brighten as we dove head first into his earliest edible memories. “They say you can’t go back in time,” he declared, as he shook his head while vividly recalling a blaring spot filet being lifted from a pan of glistening oil. It seemed he was proving that time travel does, in fact, exist. “Back then, there was always a whole fish crispy fried with buttery grits, sliced tomatoes, and a jar of pepper vinegar on the table,” he continued.

Rhodes as a child. Courtesy photo.

Rhodes as a child. Courtesy photo.

A native of the Port City and an advocate for all ingredients our land and sea have to offer, Rhodes made his mark as a leader in the community’s food scene during his early days at Deluxe—Wilmington’s fine dining restaurant once located where PinPoint now resides. Yet, he branched out on his own with Catch, opened a few more restaurants thereafter and even made a stint on Top Chef Texas in the early 2010s. Today, between the always-lively Catch Restaurant and its mobile sister Catch the Food Truck (known for zipping around town, slinging crazy fresh eats like fried catfish tacos), it’s clear this is a dude who digs seafood.

At 19 Rhodes married his sweetheart, Angela—who now handles the marketing for Catch. In their home kitchen, he stuck to the rhythm of the fish-and-grits basics his grandfather taught him. Once he entered the restaurant industry, his culinary curiosity took flight.

As Rhodes schooled me on authentic eastern Carolina fare, he announced, “To me, catfish is home—and it’s all about fish and grits!” Most Southern chefs elect shrimp to pile atop a mound of the creamy cornmeal blend, but not this hometown hero. As an ode to his grandfather’s classic preparation of fish and grits, which was “cooked with love and seasoned to perfection,” Rhodes whipped up tangy tartar sauce-topped, cornmeal-crusted spot filets and vibrant heirloom tomatoes (to mimic the red rounds from back-in-the-day). However, if he were serving it at Catch, he would modernize it with butternut squash, Vervain-Basil pistou and pippin apple.

                       

What better way to extract adolescent food stories from a friend, who also happens to be of one Wilmington’s most talented chefs, than over a couple of afternoon brews on Front Street? I clinked my fizzy golden IPA into Jessica Cabo’s maroon-tinted Elderberry Sour. Cabo—executive chef of East Oceanfront Dining at the Wrightsville Beach Blockade Runner—swigged her dark beer and snickered as she yanked a faded photograph from between the pages of a book.

NOODLE MANIA: Jessica Cabo still gets messy with her mom’s homemade spaghetti, just as she did when she was in diapers.

NOODLE MANIA: Jessica Cabo still gets messy with her mom’s homemade spaghetti, just as she did when she was in diapers.

“And I’m not even Italian!” she shouted as we doubled over laughing at the image of an adorable, curly-haired blonde baby in the midst of a marinara-and-meat-sauce explosion.

Growing up on Long Island, Cabo was familiar with coastal cuisine always. But no way in hell would fish sticks be found on this kid’s plate. As she recounts never having glanced at a children’s menu, a tale of one of her earliest and most favorite food memories comes at age 6—when she ordered a rich, garlicky platter of … escargot?

Cabo as a child. Courtesy photo.

Cabo as a child. Courtesy photo.

“It’s likely I also asked for a Shirley Temple,” she said, “and I swiped bread through every last bite of that buttery sauce! It’s not like it was a Happy Meal.”

Cabo adored watching her mom (a self-taught kitchen connoisseur) prepare everything from Hungarian goulash to tuna casserole. Both parents had a hand in producing some of Cabo’s most delectable moments. As she summonsed memories of her dad’s mussel-and-clam-infused boils, I felt her gaze extend beyond me and land in the past (most likely inside a giant seafood-perfumed pot).

After bouncing from East to West Coast and back, and honing her culinary skills under superior mentors, Cabo’s cuisine became as fun, fresh and funky as the imaginative kitchen wizard herself.

“I’m most definitely an experimental chef,” she proclaimed. Tinkering with techniques and ingredients from different genres, like Californian fare, Asian eats, and vegetarian diets, her colorful modern-day creations can only be described as “art you can eat.”

To Cabo her childhood tastes like her mom’s signature pasta and meat sauce (no canned Spaghettio’s here). So with a helping hand from tons of local herbs, she now re-interprets this dish by using varying ground proteins and a scratch-made red sauce perfumed with vibrant opal basil and earthy, garden-fresh oregano. Each time Cabo steps foot in the kitchen, she finds it’s an opportunity to educate herself on different methods of cooking.

“I switch from beef to lamb to pork to chorizo, and recently I’ve even (successfully) tried out vegetarian meatballs with spinach, artichoke, and quinoa.”

Despite her non-Italian roots, Cabo’s marinara-infused memories are the catalyst for a lifelong respect of finding creativity and comfort in the kitchen.

Catch Modern Seafood is located at 6623 Market St. (910) 799-3847. www.catchwilmington.com

Blockade Runner’s East Oceanfront Dining is located at 275 Waynick Blvd., Wrightsville Beach, NC. (910) 256-2251. www.blockade-runner.com/dining-br/east-oceanfront-dining

PinPoint Restaurant is located downtown at 114 Market St. (910) 769-2972. www.pinpointrestaurant.com

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