CAROLINA BEACH — Local award-winning chef Kirsten Mitchell and her mother Donna Mitchell will officially launch a French-Polynesian and Caribbean restaurant called Salt Fish Restaurant and Tiki Bar Wednesday evening.
“This is the peak of my whole life’s work,” Kirsten said.
A culinary life
Her 15-year career as a chef was founded by a childhood spent at her parents’ French bistro in the mountains of Banner Elk in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every year her dad, a surfer whose own father was a chef, closed the restaurant during the slow winter season and moved the family south to the Bahamas, where Kirsten acquired a taste for Caribbean recipes.
In 2012, Kirsten made the Food & Wine People’s Choice list of top 100 chefs in the country for her work at 1900 Restaurant Lounge. After starting and later selling the Vittles food truck, she spent a winter in France to experience French cooking for herself.
She returned and became the chef at Ceviche’s, a Panamanian style cafe where she won the Taste of Wrightsville Beach in 2017. But it was her time in France, an “eating expedition” accompanied by her mom and 10-year old daughter, when she made the decision to start her own restaurant — one that tied a Caribbean childhood with her roots in French cooking.
“Instead of doing Latin-Carribean dishes, which everyone is doing now, we decided to go on the other side of the world,” Kirsten said, noting that Polynesian dishes have a subtle Asian influence.
‘All ports of call’ on the menu
“All ports of call — her genre is not just Caribbean, it’s not just Polynesian. It’s a little bit of everything,” Donna said.
With Donna in charge of the restaurant’s decor — a mermaid chandelier draped in twinkle lights hangs near the entrance while French and Caribbean-inspired art adorns the walls — Kirsten has created an eclectic menu that includes a Hawaiian raw-tuna salad called tuna poke and a “fish of the day” wrapped in banana leaf with coconut rice and topped with a mango chili butter.
“With our food we wanted to be over-the-top, almost silly. Orchids on the food and drinks … And we wanted it to be affordable; not a special occasion restaurant but a once-a-week restaurant,” Donna said.
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Kirsten advised new customers to order an “over-the-top pineapple filled with fried rice, Chinese sausage, and shrimp along with an over-the-top tiki drink,” — a Polynesian specialty heavy on rum that she garnishes with a pineapple slice, umbrella, and an orchid.
Holy Smokes BBQ had left behind an old smoker when the Mitchells first moved into the building — located on the east side of Lake Park Boulevard near downtown Carolina Beach — so Kirsten decided to prepare smoked fish bread and smoked mullet.
Kirsten is particularly excited about the smoked mullet, a fish that North Carolinians tend to associate with bait fish, not as “something you can actually eat and is delicious.” She also makes her own steam buns and saltine crackers, part of an overall goal to become a “fully scratch kitchen, chef-driven but casual.”
Ultimately the Mitchells aim to create a fine dining service in a casual atmosphere, one that is fun and inspiring.
“We want people to feel like they’re taken out of their daily norm and into some sort of fantasy island restaurant,” Kirsten said.
For Kirsten, a third-generation chef raised in a tight-knit family, her relationship with her own daughter was a key factor in trading the long kitchen hours of a larger operation for a smaller restaurant where her daughter could spend time — much like her own childhood in Banner Elk.
“I wanted to have her more in my life. I worked a lot of hours [before], and I didn’t have a lot of time for that,” Kirsten said.
Salt Fish Restaurant and Tiki Bar is located at 718 N Lake Park Blvd. Its tentative hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 5 – 9 p.m. For more information, check out the restaurant Facebook page.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com