WILMINGTON — Downtown Wilmington’s newest restaurant has all the makings of a great southern food restaurant: local ingredients, a humble attitude and a chef who has paid his dues in Wilmington kitchens for years. But Savorez’s Chef Sam Cahoon wanted to do something a little different.
Like many of Wilmington’s top chefs, Cahoon is a fan of the “farm to table” movement, but he doesn’t want to be limited by the style’s fixation on southern recipes.
“Everyone wants to be Sean Brock [chef of influential Charleston farm-to-table Husk]. And that’s not a bad thing to shoot for, by any measure. But farm to table doesn’t mean you have cook grandma’s cooking,” Cahoon said. “Listen: I love grandma’s cooking. I’ll eat it all the time. But let’s be more adventurous, like take our local ingredients and do something new with them.”
Cahoon calls his cooking a mix of “good old southern food and Latin flavors.” Cahoon works to utilize as much local and regional produce and seafood as possible, but looks to Central America for his flavor profiles.
The restaurant’s name is a play on the Spanish for “sabores,” which means “flavors,” but spelled phonetically so, as Cahoon put it, “white people down south can say it right, to be honest.”
Cahoon sources a lot of local produce from Feast Down East, which connects Savorez with local farms.
“It’s an easy way for me to get what’s local and seasonal. I also get a bunch of stuff from Lorek Farms, in Castle Hayne,” Cahoon said. “Andrew (Lorek, owner) is kind of an under-the-radar guy, but I’m still going to say his name. His produce is too good not to.”
A chef who has paid his dues
Cahoon has been working in Wilmington kitchens since he was a teenager. When he was 17, he did a stint at Dockside Restaurant, and saw fresh seafood prepared for the first time. Cahoon fell in love.
“I remember seeing a perfect piece of tuna seared on the grill, with those pretty X marks,” Cahoon said. “Working with seafood there just got me hooked.”
Climbing up through the local ranks, Cahoon never lost his love of seafood, but it wasn’t until his time working as a sous-chef for K-38 that he married his love of seafood to vibrant Latin cuisine.
“I think K-38 is one of the most underrated places in town. My first day there, it showed me how colorful food could be. I remember seeing a pineapple salsa. I saw a sixth pan of shredded red cabbage and saying, ‘[expletive], that’s so beautiful,'” Cahoon said.
While K-38 focuses primarily on Baja California cuisine, Cahoon found himself drawn to the restaurants occasional detours into southern Mexican, Latin and Central American food.
“I just like the food. It’s not stuck up, it’s a bright, fresh kind of cooking. It’s not overly fancy, but it still has to be done right – you’ve got big flavors that you’ve got to balance. It’s amazing food but it’s humble food, and humility is so important in this work.”
Cahoon’s love of Latin American food – including ceviche – led him, not surprisingly, to take the helm at Ceviche’s near Wrighstville Beach. There Cahoon started the project that Savorez would complete, blending the southern influences of his Wilmington upbringing with the big colors and flavors of countries like Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
“Take our chimichurri ranch,” Cahoon said. “Ranch is just mayonnaise and buttermilk and a blend of spices, so we just used the herbs and spices of chimichurri in there. Or our quinoa-crusted fish tacos. We’ll take fresh local flounder – you know Wilmington, we love our fried flounder – but we’re giving it those other Latin flavors.”
Cahoon says he hates the word “fusion” and prefers to think of the food as an extension of himself.
“I grew up here, and I’ve grown up, I’ve absorbed things,” he said. “I was a punk rocker, you know, we did things are own way. I worked in corporate restaurants, but that wasn’t for me. I fell in love with seafood, and I fell in love with these flavors I’m cooking with now. This restaurant is just an extension of me.”
A spot in the downtown Wilmington food scene
The restaurant had a soft open last week and, so far, Cahoon said things have gone better than expected.
“It’s been amazing. We didn’t tell anybody we were going to open. We just kind of opened the doors on Monday at 5 o’clock. and people came in. I haven’t even finished setting up our website. It’s all been word of mouth,” Cahoon said.
Cahoon said he hopes his restaurant can bring fans of his cooking at Ceviche’s to downtown, but also introduce his style to “this whole new downtown thing.”
Savorez aims to be a good middle ground between more expensive fine-dining and pub food, Cahoon said.
“You’ve got Pinpoint, RX and Manna downtown. Amazing food, amazing chefs, but they are expensive, and that can turn people off sometimes. And, on the other hand, you’ve got the Copper Penny. Again, amazing food, I eat there all the time. But I feel, and I hope our customers feel, that there’s a space in between,” Cahoon said. “You can have a great meal without a tablecloth, but it doesn’t have to be a bar, with TVs and all that.”
Cahoon added that he hopes Savorez’s location will help the restaurant fit into the downtown scene.
“We’re a little off the beaten path, but I think that’s good,” he said. “You don’t necessarily want to be down there when the bars are going full tilt. And we’re halfway between the downtown area and the new things that are starting to happen in the Brooklyn Arts district. So I think – I hope – it’s a good fit.”
For now, Cahoon and his staff have their eyes set on the Azalea Festival weekend, a notorious gauntlet for downtown restaurants.
“We’ll be here, cranking it out,” said Cahoon.
Savorez is located at the corner of Chesnut and N. Fourth streets, in the former Flying Pi location. It is open for lunch through dinner, 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon – 10 p.m. Saturday and for Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. You can reach the restaurant at (910) 833-8894 or on Facebook.