No one claims working in a kitchen is easy. Those who do it, and excel at it, are typically driven by a passion for food and creativity. That may be especially true for these chefs, whose duties require them to juggle multiple cooking responsibilities, all for the pleasure of local eaters.
Chef at Pine Valley Market
3520 S. College Rd. • (910) 350-3663
After more than a decade as a chef, Chris McCauley says he has refined his culinary philosophy. Like many in the business, he got an early start by working in restaurants before it was technically legal for him to do so. He moved on to fine-dining restaurants and had a chance to work with accomplished restaurateurs and influential regional chefs.
“I was able to have a lot of really great experiences at a young age,” he says. And as he’s matured, his new focus is uncomplicated fare. “Right now, I just want to make good, clean, simple, honest food.”
It’s probably one of the reasons he’s been a good fit at Wilmington’s Pine Valley Market, the local multipurpose eatery now celebrating 20 years in business. Christi Ferretti and Kathy Webb-Ferretti have owned it for 15 years.
“They, and I, have really high standards,” McCauley praises. Plus, they have a desire to fulfill many local foodie needs.
McCauley started working at PVM about two years ago, as a cochef with Smoky Masters. McCauley took over the executive chef position a year ago.
“I come into work, and it’s about figuring out where we are,” he says. “We might have two catering jobs and four of the five divisions of the market need something.”
In addition to providing corporate and private catering for events, from weddings to dinner parties, the market has several ways to feed those who are hungry for good food. On one recent visit, the freezer-meal section had 18 varieties of casseroles and dishes for stocking at home.
There’s also the full-service meat counter and a grab-and-go section for quicker meals, which is usually supplied with dishes like homemade meatballs, twice-baked potatoes and prepared salads.
The market serves lunch and breakfast with a menu that changes three or four times a year. “We like to always re-evaluate and make things more seasonal,” McCauley tells. “And I think right now, breakfast is our best-kept secret.”
Specials include dishes like real corned-beef hash, eggs Benedict and oatmeal pancakes. “I would say 99 percent of all of these things are made in-house,” he says. McCauley and the staff at PVM carefully prepare each tiny tomato pie for catering events or every individual pan of peach cobbler to sell in the store.
Over the years, the menu at Pine Valley Market has grown from an amalgamation of influences. It includes items of popularity from their beginnings—like the beloved chicken and rice—and those that reflect Ferretti’s Italian heritage. McCauley says he’s added more Southern and regional fare since joining the crew.
“I would also say I like to do dishes with Asian influences,” he explains, a result of his previous experiences, which last included working with Peabody Award winner Vivian Howard (known for her show “A Chef’s Life” on PBS, featuring the inner workings of her Kinston, NC, restaurants Chef and the Farmer and The Boiler Room).
As well McCauley has engaged his competitive streak in local cooking competitions. He was the youngest chef to win at the Beaufort Wine & Food festival. Just last year, he and his team placed second in the local Fire on the Dock competition.
“I have to wear multiple hats,” McCauley continues. “Working at the market has helped my ability to multitask and see the bigger picture.” Although the different aspects of the business ebb and flow during the year—freezer meals and soup are big during the winter months, for example, and the meat counter is a summer staple for local grillers—they do sometimes converge. During the holidays, everything is busy. “What I’ve learned is you have to be organized,” McCauley states.
That happens to be a skill he’s seen from Ferretti first hand, who is a natural at logistics and who wants her staff to be a tight-knit family. McCauley, meanwhile, has added enthusiasm, professionalism and creativity to the mix, according to Ferretti. He gets to add his own vision to the already adored tried-and-true dishes the market serves. He loves writing menus and devising imaginative items for clients.
“At first, I could tell maybe they were a little hesitant,” he notes. Regular clients have learned they can count on McCauley to add interest to their even—like with an appetizer wrapped in a cilantro cotton candy. “And one of the great things about this is it’s always something different,” he promises. One week he might be concocting a tasting menu for 15 people and the next, planning an intimate dinner for four.
Pastry chef for Circa Restaurant Group
8 N. Front St. • (910) 762-1922
Desserts weren’t necessarily Amanda Corbett’s passion when she attended the culinary program at Cape Fear Community College. It started to change after a pastry class and when she started making wedding cakes for friends. “It was something I just loved to do,” Corbett notes. “I love the decorating process.”
After graduation, she worked at a handful of jobs before she became a chef and pizza maker at Osteria Cicchetti for owner Ash Aziz. That was nine years ago. It’s now been several months since she’s taken on a new role of pastry chef for all of the eateries in Aziz’s Circa Restaurant Group.
In a typical day, Corbett will finish making gelatos and sorbets—including a special flavor of the day, like raspberry and cream—all while setting out trays of mango and orange pâte de fruit, a French-gelled candy, served on cheese plates at some of the five different restaurants. Doing the little extra bit takes planning and preparation on her part—especially when engaging in the three-day process for one of the most popular desserts, Coconut Sushi. Her workspace is lined with bins of chocolates and sugars, and containers filled with hot-fudge and caramel sauces, which she makes in large batches. In listening to the description of her work, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed on her behalf. “It’s not that big a deal,” she says. But her notebook of recipes and components tells a different story.
For Corbett Tuesdays and Thursdays are usually her prep days. She makes stock, figures out the basics, and preps foundation ingredients on which her desserts are built. One of her busiest days is Wednesday. At the end of each shift at the restaurants, chefs and managers will e-mail her with their order lists. Many come in late on Tuesdays, so she spends most of Wednesday making them. One recent Wednesday, she had 18 desserts on her list, including a seven-layer Colossal Chocolate Cake, profiteroles, Black and White Cake, bread puddings, and mini desserts.
“I would say most of them have four or five parts,” she tells. The Bananas Foster at Boca Bay, for example, includes a dark rum sauce, banana bread made with brûléed bananas, candied walnuts, and banana ice cream. Corbett makes each piece so chefs at the restaurants can assemble them on site.
In addition to the dessert orders, she might make batches of mousse, several ice cream flavors, truffles, and tiny cookies and other garnishes. On Saturdays she and the assistant pastry chef focus on brunch, by making croissants, cinnamon rolls, and a variety of other breads and pastries.
“We usually always have a special, too,” she explains. Maybe a spinach-and-cheese roll, for example, or glazed lemon-star Danish.
The three mixers at her kitchen usually run at once. And the cooling racks and ovens at her home base at Osteria Cicchetti on Military Cutoff see heavy use. Corbett likes to cook and bake at home, too. “But it is so much easier here” she claims.
Even with a schedule full of making some of the area’s favorite sweet treats, Corbett still has time to experiment. She already has a new favorite for the year: a S’mores Cake she made for a New Year’s Eve menu. The dish was inspired by a candy Aziz brought to Corbett with the request to build a dessert around it. She’s also added at least one gluten-free dessert at each location, including the Peanut Butter Cake, with layers of peanut butter mousse, chocolate ganache, roasted peanuts, and caramel sauce. She tries to balance the dessert offerings at each place, making sure a diversity of flavors and textures are represented.
“Ash is really great about letting me try my crazy ideas,” she praises.
If they work, they usually stick around for a while. She often visits the other restaurants on a regular basis to review what was most popular each season.
Corbett’s schedule means she hasn’t been baking as many wedding cakes (although she’ll be making her own later this year), but desserts have become her life.
“I love playing around with recipes,” she says, “thinking about why they work or don’t work. I love troubleshooting problems.”