A Chef’s Journey from New England to the New South

Bruce Moffett ’87 has found success and satisfaction creating dishes inspired by his home state, Rhode Island, and his new home, North Carolina.

Chef Bruce Moffett is the founding chef of four successful restaurants and the author of a cookbook that tells the story of his evolution as a chef and his journey from New England to the “New South.”

Chef Bruce Moffett ’87 reminisces about his earliest food memories—all quintessential Rhode Island experiences: shopping for produce at Carpenter’s Farm in Matunuck with his mother and grandmother, slurping Del’s lemonade at the beach, and plucking mussels off the sea wall for dinners at his family’s South County summer home.

But Moffett, founding chef of four restaurants in Charlotte, N.C., and author of the cookbook, Bruce Moffett Cooks: A New England Chef in a New South Kitchen, wasn’t born to be behind a stove. A political science major at URI, Moffett spent time in Washington, D.C., working in the office of the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) before moving to Charlotte with a friend and opening a pizza restaurant: “A big, impulsive decision by a depressed young man at the time,” he recalls.

The pizzeria broke even and propelled Moffett to pursue a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. He returned to the Queen City in 2000 to found—with a nod to his East Bay hometown—Barrington’s, a “new American” eatery that helped elevate the city’s culinary scene with a mix of Southern and New England cuisines. “It’s really rewarding to see Charlotte’s evolution from ‘meat and three’ cafeterias to where it is today, and feel like I was a part of that,” he says.

Moffett would later add three more Charlotte restaurants: Good Food on Montford, focusing on farm-fresh dining; the cozy Italian eatery Stagioni; and NC•RED, a casual seafood restaurant with hot lobster rolls and cold ’Gansett beer on the menu.

“I try to mesh the Southern dishes I really enjoy with the Northern dishes I really enjoy,” explains Moffett. His menus feature fusion dishes like grouper in tomato vinaigrette served over grits, but also classics like Rhode Island-style “stuffies” and pulled pork sourced from house-butchered North Carolina hogs.

Moffett’s meals at URI were more likely to come off a cafeteria plate than a La Cornue stove, but his time in Kingston still helps the chef face the challenges of being a business owner.

“URI taught me how to balance my life and gave me a lot of discipline,” he says. “My political science and literature classes gave me an understanding about different political systems and how they work. In the workplace, it’s important to know the difference between being authoritarian and being democratic—it gave me some diplomatic skills.”

“I think URI is a unique place,” he adds. “It has a sense of connectivity and a sense of home—I don’t know if you get that at a lot of colleges.” In many ways, that quality of URI is a reflection of its home state—and Moffett’s—where he recently returned for a visit spent, in part, sailing on Narragansett Bay.

“I still miss Rhode Island,” he says. “I may end up there again.” •

—Bob Curley

Chef Moffett shares the recipes below with URI Magazine readers. Bon appétit!

Stuffed Clams (“Stuffies”)

Two stuffs, or stuffed clams, on a plate

Stuffed quahogs are considered a poor man’s dish that is highly revered. Being near the coast in Rhode Island, there are Italian and Portuguese communities that popularized the dish. Stuffed clams became known by their local name, “stuffies.” No one can put an exact date on the origin of the dish, but it is thought to have been an invention of Italian and Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island. “Stuffies” are nostalgic and comforting. It’s the seafood cousin of turkey stuffing. A good clean clamshell is a must. Make sure you cook them long enough to get the browning effect on the top and crunchy bits around the edges.

1/3 cup clams, cooked and chopped
1/3 cup chorizo
3 tablespoons white onion, fine dice
3 tablespoons red bell pepper
3 tablespoons celery
1/3 cup butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
9 ounces clam juice
6.5 ounces chicken stock
3/4 cup corn flakes
3/4 cup panko
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon oregano

In a large stockpot, melt the butter on a medium flame, add chorizo and cook to render fat. Add all of the veggies and sweat down until tender. Add clam juice and chicken stock, bring to a simmer for 5 minutes. Add all seasonings (black pepper, sweet paprika, salt, oregano, and chili flakes). Finish with panko, corn flakes, and Parmesan cheese. Add clams. Cook together for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and cool mixture. When ready, add a scoop of mixture into a quahog hard shell clam and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit in a preheated oven until golden brown and cooked through, about 12 minutes.

Classic Mussels with Crushed Tomatoes, White Wine, and Garlic

A dish of mussels with toast and garnish of parsley on top

Mussels are abundant on the jetties that line the New England shore. As a kid, we’d go out with our buckets to pick clams and mussels while the adults did adult things. My grandmother would steam mussels as a start to a summer meal. They’re a distinct part of my childhood. At Barrington’s, we serve a classic Italian version—plump mussels steamed in tomatoes, white wine, and garlic. This recipe takes almost no time to make and works as a quick lunch, a light dinner, or an appetizer for two.

Mussels may require a process called debearding that removes a wiry membrane on the shell’s exterior. You can purchase mussels already debearded, but in case you need to take this step, there are instructions below. Serves two generously.

2 pounds mussels
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, shaved
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
Pinch crushed chili flakes
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup clam juice
Pinch kosher salt
4 whole Roma tomatoes, peeled, with juice
Crusty bread, for serving

Rinse the mussels under cold running water to remove any sediment. If necessary, use your fingers to pull off the beard, the wiry excess protruding near the hinge of the shell. Scrub the mussels once more under cold running water and place them in a colander to drain until use.

Heat a sauté pan with olive oil over high heat and add the shaved garlic. Toast the garlic until it is golden brown, then add the thyme and chili flakes, shaking the pan to incorporate the flavors. Add the mussels, wine, clam juice, and salt. Crush the tomatoes and add them to the pan with their juices. Simmer, covered, for 4 minutes, until the mussels open. Transfer the mussels to a wide, shallow bowl, discarding any that have not opened. Serve immediately with crusty bread.

Photos: Stefanie Haviv