Author: Ashley Morris
Chef Nick Townsend is a transplant that has bloomed in Southern cuisine
Eight years ago, South Beach Grill executive chef Nick Townsend packed up his stuff from his hometown in Massachusetts and started driving.
He and his best friend who went through culinary school bought walkie-talkies and drove as far south as they could.
“Wilmington is where we ran out of money,” Townsend said, standing in the middle of South Beach’s dining room in early July.
For Townsend, and regulars at South Beach, the accident of landing in Wilmington was a happy one. For the next five years, Townsend bounced around working in kitchens for LM Restaurants at Oceanic, Carolina Ale House and he helped open Hops Supply Co. He landed the nickname of the “traveling sous chef.”
But Townsend’s creative break came in 2014 when he was hired at South Beach Grill. As Townsend describes it, the restaurant has just about everything to offer customers from chicken tenders and fries for kids to ahi tuna and grouper. Six months in, Townsend was named executive chef.
“I really love the seasonality of working here,” he said. “For six months you can really show off all the local food and serve visitors and then for another six months you really get a chance to step back, try something new and revisit the menu.”
The menu, for the most part, is full of old staples that have adorned the page for nearly a decade. The shrimp and grits will likely never be changed.
But Townsend’s fingerprints are certainly on the menu with the Nashville hot chicken and waffles, a “Sea-cuterie” plate and this summer chilled soup special: a watermelon and cucumber gazpacho with a chilled mint cream.
The Nashville hot chicken and waffles are composed of a sweet potato and Vidalia onion Belgian waffle topped with a spicy breaded, crispy, chicken thigh and drizzled with a homemade Nashville hot sauce.
The Sea-cuterie (chilled seafood and rare ahi tuna along with charcuterie selections) and poke bowls are the influence of Townsend, who has found his culinary identity in not only cooking in the South, but also being on the coast.
“I have a small obsession with sushi and raw seafood and (it) probably comes from the fact that I know what waters they are coming from, what the fish are eating and I am out there fishing all the time,” he said. “With steak, it is a little more complicated to know the farm-to-table process.”
Townsend has a close relationship with Seaview Crab Company, and the restaurant orders anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds of fresh fish each day, getting as much as possible from the North Carolina coast.
The chalkboard menu is where Townsend really gets creative and seasonal. His team of cooks offers up dishes they want to be on the menu each week.
“I’ve worked in corporate kitchens where they show you a picture of a dish and tell everyone to make it,” he said. “Here the cooks come and pitch something to try after maybe they saw someone make it on TV or have a great idea for a seasonal ingredient. If the dish sells well, they get bragging rights.”
His kitchen, Townsend said, is not a dictatorship.
The chalkboard menu is full of stick-to-your-ribs Southern comfort foods in the fall like collards and ribs, especially in the colder months.
He admits growing up his family came together to eat, but as everyone grew up, family members ate on-the-go.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I became a chef is to bring that nostalgia back and get everyone around the table again,” he said.