A bit of fishing on the part of local restaurateur Keith Rhodes yielded a major catch.
Rhodes, chef and owner of Catch restaurant in Wilmington, learned that international food blogger Mark Wiens was staying with family in the North Carolina mountains.
“There was a major COVID outbreak in Thailand, where he’s based, and he had to wait it out,” Rhodes said Monday. “When I found out, I sent him an email; I’m a forever fan. He’s like the President to me.”
In his message to Wiens, Rhodes invited the YouTube vlogger to visit the coast, pitching an idea that went beyond the Catch kitchen: something Rhodes called a “crash tour” showcasing his sources for local seafood. Wiens apparently jumped at the bait.
The video, Soft Shell Burger & Oysters + BEST SHRIMP & GRITS!
, begins at Catch, 6623 Market St., where Rhodes prepared his signature shrimp and grits, followed by grouper and grits and a spicy okra dish Limpin’ Susan – a reference to New Year’s Day favorite, Hoppin’ John, to whom Limpin' Susan was married, according to Southern food lore.
After Wiens and his family sampled this popular Catch fare, they headed by boat to Middle Sound Mariculture’s oyster farm, from which Rhodes gets the oysters served at Catch. Owner James Hargrove explained how oysters grow to maturity in the sheltered sound waters and harvested some table-ready specimens.
From there, the group took Rhodes’ Catch the Food Truck – managed by Rhodes’ wife Angela – to the Carolina Beach location where “uncle" Phil Smith produces soft-shell crabs.
“I’ve been buying soft-shell crabs from uncle Phil for over 20 years,” Rhodes said in the video, as Smith demonstrated how he monitors the blue crabs’ molting process and sells the crabs before they regrow a new shell.
In the food truck, Rhodes prepared – and Wiens sampled – Catch's signature soft-shell burgers.
Hopping into a boat, the group motored out into the salt marsh to witness the harvesting of mussels with Ana Shellem, owner of Shell’em Seafood, based in Wrightsville Beach.
“I was the first [restaurateur] in Wilmington to use local mussels,” Rhodes said Monday.
The one-hour show concludes with a collaboration between Rhodes and Lee Grossman, chef and owner of Bento Box Sushi Bar and Asian Kitchen in The Forum. While Rhodes prepared “Dirty South” roasted oysters and deep-fried soft-shell crab in the Bento Box kitchen, Grossman demonstrated the assembly of several types of sushi.
Grossman, who traveled to Thailand in 2017 to do research for his restaurant’s pan-Asian menu, talked about his culinary journey with Wiens, a Chinese American who lives in Thailand with his Thai wife, a travel vlogger.
Like Rhodes, Grossman is a fan of Wiens and his YouTube channel.
“He’s probably the biggest food blogger in the world,” Grossman said Monday. “He has eight-and-a-half million followers. Keith put this whole thing together showing our little piece of the world.”
Rhodes was pleased with Wiens' visit and the resulting video.
“He’s a nice guy; he only wants to bring out the best,” he said. “The video was such a great opportunity to showcase us. Everything worked really well to highlight our community.”
As of Tuesday, May 24, the episode had garnered over 1.2 million views, which aired May 14 and generated strong positive responses from Wiens’ followers.
“It’s been gangbusters,” Rhodes said of its impact on his restaurant. “We’ve had calls from all over the world.”
Many of the top comments remarked that the episode was Wiens' best yet.
"I had the honor of spending a couple of days with Chef Keith Rhodes and his wonderful family – it was a rewarding experience seeing the quality ingredients he sources from the Carolina coast, and the passionate people behind them," Wiens wrote in an email. "Thank you to Chef Keith and all who made my trip so memorable. Also, let’s support local producers and family run restaurants and businesses!"