“Anybody see anything they want?” calls fisherman Eddie Willis, untangling an errant horseshoe crab from a net and tossing it back into the water. “We’ve got some red drum over here,” he adds, pointing into the fray of hundreds of netted fish thrashing and splashing. The small boats rock back and forth in the waves and drizzling rain; the skiff full of chefs is beginning to look like a pen full of wet dogs.
“Let’s have some of that drum and a bunch of that skate,” calls Blind Pig Supper Club chef Mike Moore of Asheville. Moore has gathered some of the best cooks from all over North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee to prepare an early October dinner in Beaufort, N.C., to benefit the city’s local Boys and Girls Club and Beaufort Wine & Food — a nonprofit organization that hosts fundraising dinners for local charities throughout the Crystal Coast.
Blind Pig, the Asheville-based, underground supper club, has hosted meals all over the U.S., but this one is different. Dubbed “Brogue: A Sea and Farm Dinner of Downeast,” it is what Moore calls a “research dinner.” The project finds the chefs on boats off the North Carolina coast, gleaning from Willis — a 40-year veteran of the fishing industry and owner of Mr. Big Seafood in Harkers Island — some hands-on knowledge of how the fish they prepare in their restaurants are really caught. The day before, the group ventured out to Underground Farm, a sustainable fish, chicken and vegetable farm in Carteret County, local farmers markets and a fish market.
Later that day, there is more rain in the forecast, but at Harkers Point — an estate owned by the Maxwell family of Butterball Turkey fame — there is a large tent set up right on the dock with long tables and glowing candles ready to host the 170 people who have tickets to the sold-out dinner. As the storms begin to roll in, the chefs begin prepping the fish caught just hours ago. Lined up along the rails of the dock, the fish are gutted and the offal is tossed into the ocean, where waiting gulls swoop into the water to devour it. A pit is dug and whole mullet are laid on the burning coals. Oysters are placed on a wood grill, piled so deep they have to be stirred with a shovel.
As dinner is served, the rain starts to fall. Guests move to find their seats just as the first course rolls out — an incredibly fresh crudo made by chef Levon Wallace of Cochon Butcher in Nashville, Tenn., from the grouper caught earlier that day. Then, chef Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 and Dank Burrito food truck in Morehead City, brings out his creation: a down-east clam chowder with an elegant, milky-white, briny broth. The third course is Moore’s soft-shell crabs, tomato, aioli and freshly dug potatoes.
Clam fritters with a slaw of local shrimp and vegetables is the offering from chef Travis Milton of Shovel & Pick in Virginia. The fritters are different from what one would expect, resembling a grit cake more than a hushpuppy. Next, comes the contribution from Nate Allen of Spruce Pine’s Knife & Fork, who has been manning the mullet pit. He marinated the mullet in a fresh fish sauce made from guts saved during cleaning process, then smoked them over the wood fire and seasoned them with ash. The result has a rustic grit and an almost overwhelmingly fresh flavor.
The final savory course is from chef Kyle McKnight of Hickory’s Highland Avenue. His house-preserved pork has been seared on the flat-top grill in Merrell’s food truck, which had been brought along on the adventure as a mobile backup kitchen. Paired with field peas and cornpone in a bed of watermelon molasses, the dish has a sweet, savory, salty and tangy kind of thing going on.
For dessert comes a rendition of Atlantic Beach pie from chef Jason Scott of Island Grill Restaurant and Bar. A large, cup-shaped crust made of crumbled crackers is filled with whipped goat cheese and muscadine grapes. Atlantic Beach pie is one of those throwback dishes that has been around since the 1940s. It’s an endangered species of Southern culture and a perfect way to finish such a reverent dinner.
As the night wraps up, a zydeco band plays, and the rain passes. Guests slump back, satisfied, with full bellies and wine-soaked livers. And the chefs, beyond having a once-in-a-lifetime fishing experience, learning about Carolina coastal culture and feeding nearly 200 guests, have achieved something crucial. Through the weekend’s experiences, they’ve been able to absorb and convey a history and a community preserved in food — a soul, culture and history shared through hands, knives, hooks, nets, grills, pits and plates.
Moore is planning two future research dinners — one in Williamsburg, Va., and one in Savannah, Ga. For updates on those, visit theblindpigofasheville.com.