Fresh Dish: Mike McCarty on what chefs eat on their days off, and his first trip to the Crescent City

REELING IN THE YEARS: Mike McCarty, owner and chef of downtown's The Lobster Trap, got his passion for cooking when he moved to Asheville in 1997. Photo by Andy Hall

When California-native Mike McCarty moved to Asheville in 1997, he washed dishes and cooked at the Parkway Restaurant, a former Greek establishment in East Asheville. The job, he says, “ignited a spark” in him to pursue his culinary career. Shortly thereafter, he entered and graduated from the culinary program at A-B Tech. From there, he relocated to Charleston, where he put his culinary skills to use.

In 2006, McCarty returned to Asheville and landed a gig cooking at The Lobster Trap. What he anticipated as a short-term stint ultimately turned into 18 years. “It’s funny how that happens,” he says.

When Amy Beard, founding owner of The Lobster Trap, decided to sell the business, she and McCarty “had a serious discussion,” he recalls. McCarty initially came on as a co-owner in 2018. More recently, in July, he took over as sole owner.

Xpress sat down with McCarty to talk new trends in tinned fish, the local Greek community and kumquats.

Xpress: What is a current item on The Lobster Trap’s menu that isn’t getting the attention it deserves?

McCarty: Our tinned fish board. We had it on for a brief period but took it off and decided to take a step back and look at it — what we could change, what we could do better. Sometimes something can play really well on paper, you test it in the kitchen, and it can be great — but then it loses translation on the menu to the customer.

We also learned it takes work and effort and explaining and showcasing what the product is — as opposed to just throwing it on the menu, thinking that everyone is going to just love what you put out there. But once [the customer] catches on, they’ll enjoy it.

Why do you think this particular item required such an effort?

I think the stigma is that so many people get this image of a greasy, oily can of sardines that they remember from childhood and being grossed out by it. But what we have today are products that are being made really well, and it’s all sustainable. Tinned fish is sort of trending right now. We use a company called Nuri, out of Portugal. It’s an amazing small business, and everything is prepared by hand since 1920. The fish are cleaned by hand and steam cooked. We currently serve the sardines with chow chow, house pickled vegetables, bread from City Bakery and mustard.

Tell us about a local dish that you’ve had recently that blew you away?

Honestly, on my days off, as with most chefs, we just want a really good burger. And wings. And a beer.

Loott House has really good food. The burgers and the wings knocked me out. They have a great smash burger. And it’s a real smash burger. It’s not like these big, fat patties that some people are calling smash burgers. That’s what I love about smash burgers.

[Co-owner] Jake [Whitman] is a really good chef, a talented guy. He’s been in town cooking around for a long time.

What is a seasonal ingredient that is underrepresented in home cooking?

Kumquats — they are my favorite citrus. I was working at a restaurant years ago, and we made a kumquat chutney. That was my first exposure to it.

They’re available between November and March, sometimes April, but that’s pushing it. I have found them at Earth Fare and Whole Foods.

My favorite is candied kumquats. They’re great on a really nice piece of toast [or] on a salad. We’ve done it here paired with a fish. It goes really well with a delicate piece of white fish. It gives it that umami. You’ve got the sweet and the butter — it’s really tasty. Sometimes I’ll just slice them and just eat them.

What cuisine would you like to see more represented in our area?

Greek. Asheville still has a large Greek community, but a lot of people might not realize in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s we had dozens of Greek-run restaurants.

Every Sunday [at Parkway Restaurant], they would do this Greek feast … and that’s when I really fell in love with that cuisine.

And every September is the Greek Festival in Montford when the whole community just comes together and you get the best, most authentic Greek cuisine you could ask for. And the Greek coffee is really awesome. Every time I’m at the festival, I think, I wish they could all just open up a restaurant and we could have this food all the time.

What’s a favorite food destination within driving distance of Asheville that readers should add to their list?

I just went to New Orleans for the first time in December, so it’s really on the forefront of my mind. You can technically drive there [laughs]. We went there the day after Christmas. And, unbeknownst to me, that was their quiet time. Because they began celebrating and preparing for Mardi Gras about the week after I left.

We ate a lot of seafood and a lot of Vietnamese. There’s a large Vietnamese and Asian population down there. We ate at a neighborhood French restaurant called N7 in the Bywater and at Mopho, which had incredible pho and some of the best wings I’ve ever had in my life. We ate po’boys at Parkway [Bakery & Tavern]. I wanted oyster, but they weren’t serving it at that time, so I got shrimp. You can’t go wrong with shrimp.

We saw a lot of great music down there, too. I can’t wait to go back.

Who would you like to see us dish with next month?

Trevor Payne at Tall John’s. He’s a good guy and a really talented chef.


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About Andy Hall
Andy Hall graduated from The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. After working at the United States Capitol for ten years, she has returned to her native state to enjoy the mountains — and finally become a writer.

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