WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - It takes the right mixture of ingredients to create a tasty meal. A pinch of this, a cup of that. Stir briskly. Serve. It's one thing to complete that process in your own kitchen. It's something else entirely to do that for strangers, do it successfully, and have them pay you for your time and effort. Keith Rhodes noticed early in his life that food could be fun.
"One of the things that sparked that interest in me, there were a lot of factors growing up, was how happy people were," says the owner of Catch restaurant. "People were really happy with food, and the idea of coming together under the pretense of a meal. It was something that I enjoyed watching, everyone festive and having fun. I thought 'hey, this might be something I want to do'.
Keith Rhodes was born in Ohio, but has called Wilmington "home" for most of his life. Rhodes' mother passed away when he was in his early teens, and his paternal grandparents took the family into their home. Keith would often watch his grandfather gather and prepare the family meals, and it had a direct impact on the foods he would end up specializing in as a chef. He talks about the early influences at 1:45 of the podcast.
Rhodes got his first job in a kitchen at the Figure 8 Island Yacht Club, which was seasonal. He worked there in the summer, and the nearby Surf Club in Wrightsville Beach in the winter months. Washing dishes may have been his primary responsibility, but Rhodes was also learning about the inner workings of food preparation. The first long-term cooking job he secured was at a place called Wally's, now called Bluewater Grill, where he worked for about seven years. A job at Shell Island Resort followed, until hurricane damage there forced it to shut down for a time. A turning point came in 1996, when Rhodes landed a chef's job at a downtown Wilmington restaurant called Deluxe. That story begins at 8:00 of the podcast.
"That was an opportunity to polish what I knew," Rhodes says. "I think at that moment, that gave the opportunity to showcase what I had learned, not knowing what was on the horizon. So many things began to happen so fast."
Rhodes would eventually become Executive Chef at Deluxe, and in 2006, he began a new chapter in his culinary career. Rhodes opened his own restaurant, Catch, in downtown Wilmington, specializing in what he knew best: fresh seafood. Catch began by offering lunches, which made for long days, working his own business for the lunch crowd while still being involved at Deluxe for dinner offerings. The move added new responsibilities, forcing Rhodes to interact more with staff and customers.
"Being upstairs and away (as Executive Chef at Deluxe), I didn't really have to worry," he says. "We had managers. We had other folks who were the intermediaries that would go down and talk to customers. It forced me to reevaluate my approach, especially when I went out on my own. I knew there was a certain discipline that had to be done. I had to be someone who not only disciplined, but inspired. My servers, my workmates, my family, that type of thing."
The break-up at Deluxe came in 2009, and Rhodes then moved Catch from the first location on Princess Street to its' current spot on Market Street. While Rhodes had a reputation locally for preparing outstanding fare, his notoriety began to grow outside of Wilmington. Awards followed, including a 2011 nomination for "Best Chef in the Southeast" by the James Beard Foundation, which Rhodes calls 'the Oscars of food". Rhodes ended up as a finalist for that coveted award, which he talks about at 21:30 of the podcast.
Rhodes has continued his work with the Foundation since that 2011 nomination. He attended the Foundation's "Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change" in 2016. According to the Foundation's website, it "provides a unique opportunity for civically and politically minded chefs to become more effective leaders for food-system change". Later this year, one of Rhodes' original creations will be featured as part of the Foundation's "Culinary Cruise Collection", served to guests on board a Windstar Cruise Ship.
2011 also marked Keith Rhodes' entry into reality television. He was invited to join the cast for Top Chef Texas, season 9 of the show on Bravo network. Rhodes was one of 29 chefs featured in the competition, but ended up being ousted on episode three. Not many know that Keith actually turned down two previous opportunities to be on the program before finally accepting. He talks about that at 29:50 of the podcast.
"Then one day, one of my servers came and said, 'there's a table of four people out here and they said they want to see you, they said the food was great, or whatever," Rhodes remembers. "I walked out there, and there were some folks from Top Chef. They were there in the restaurant. I was like 'wow'."
Rhodes had concerns about leaving his wife Angela, his two children, and the restaurant in the middle of summer, the busiest season. But he took the opportunity. He remembers arriving in San Antonio and being sequestered, "almost like being on a jury". Once production began and the chefs started going through the process of buying ingredients and preparing meals, they split into teams, and the "competition" was underway. Politics crept into the dynamic. Bloggers and critics would write that Rhodes was "thrown under the bus" by his fellow chefs, leading to his quick departure. He ended up returning later in the season for a few episodes, bringing an end to what Rhodes still describes as an "overall positive experience".
"For me, with the show, what was really good was seeing the dynamic," he says. "It was the chance for me to be around chefs from around the states in a little bit more of a personal manner. It let me know that was I was doing in Wilmington was on par, or even higher than what some of these other guys were doing. It let me know that the discipline I had given myself was really awesome, because I saw so many undisciplined folks."
During interviews for the Top Chef competition, national media outlets like TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly mentioned Rhodes' time in prison, asking how it impacted his life and career. Rhodes brings up the experience during some speaking engagements, using it as an example for young men and women that they can overcome bad decisions with hard work, faith and family. That is part of our conversation at 38:00 of the podcast.
"I'm not a super religious person," Rhodes says. "But I think that was the time where it was time for me to testify. I was going to be somebody who was going to be a living testimony for 'if you make a mistake, you can certainly overcome that to where it is not an issue'."
Rhodes' notoriety, from the appearance on Top Chef, the four consecutive "Wilmington's Best Chef" awards, write-ups in magazines from Charleston to New York, and rave reviews from customers, has brought notable faces through the doors of Catch, including many movie and television performers in town working on productions. One of the more famous celebrities, Gwyneth Paltrow, shot several videos with Rhodes for her personal blog. Click here to visit the site.
Rhodes' early influences still play a large part in his dedication to buying local and improving his community's access to fresh, healthy food alternatives. He speaks of relationships he has had for decades with providers, whether it be for herbs, vegetables or seafood. Rhodes has volunteered his services in fundraisers and events benefiting organizations including the Food Bank, Phoenix Employment Ministries and Nourish NC. That part of our conversation happens at 43:00 of the podcast.
Rhodes is looking to expand Catch as well. Right now, he is working with developers to open a restaurant in the North Fourth Street area that Rhodes calls "a food desert". He says it will center around fresh seafood and healthy options, continuing the positive impact that Keith Rhodes has on his "home" here in Wilmington.
You can listen to the entire interview with Keith Rhodes on the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast: