Kirsten Mitchell took her childhood experiences growing up in the Bahamas and South Florida and her exposure to the restaurant world to open her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Salt Fish.
Mitchell, a chef for 15 years, spent eight of those years cooking in Wilmington-based restaurants including 1900 Restaurant and Lounge, Grand Cru, Ceviche’s and Vittles food truck, which she opened in 2014 and then sold.
Mitchell won Taste of Wrightsville Beach for Ceviche’s in 2017 and made the Food & Wine magazine people’s choice list of top 100 chefs in the country in 2012.
Even before becoming a chef, Mitchell was exposed to the restaurant business at her parent’s restaurant in Banner Elk.
“I grew up in a restaurant. My family owned a tiny restaurant like this,” she said, referring to her recently opened eatery in Carolina Beach. “As soon as I began cooking and started to enjoy it, I kind of always knew that I wanted to open a restaurant.”
While Mitchell knew she wanted to open her own restaurant one day, it took more time for her to figure out what kind of restaurant she wanted to open and what type of food she wanted to serve.
“I have cooked French food, and I’ve cooked Spanish food, and I’ve cooked all kinds of different foods, so to pick one was really hard,” she said.
When Mitchell found a restaurant location and a concept, it helped her decide what type of restaurant she wanted to open.
She was looking for a small restaurant that had equipment, and she found the Carolina Beach location at 718 N. Lake Park Blvd., the former location of Holy Smoke That’s BBQ!
She decided to open a restaurant influenced by the location and her experience growing up in the Bahamas, where she learned about Caribbean cooking.
The restaurant, which opened Oct. 17, features French Polynesian and Caribbean-style food, along with a tiki bar.
Mitchell opened the restaurant with her mom, Donna Mitchell.
One dish on the menu is a smoked fish platter with island slaw and Polynesian shoestring potatoes; another is a house-made smoked fish spread with pickled onions and saltines.
Both dishes were inspired by the smoker at the restaurant and her South Florida roots.
“Since there was a smoker that kind of brought in that bit of my childhood,”
Mitchell said. “So we do the smoked mullet, which is a fresh North Carolina fish, and the smoked fish spread.”
Another dish is the Bahamian- style conch fritters served with Cartwright sauce, a dish inspired by growing up in Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas.
“The sauce that is paired with the conch fritters is called Cartwright sauce, which is a family in the Bahamas that I knew,” Mitchell said. “That [the sauce] is what they served with their conch fritters, so it’s kind of an homage to them.”
The she-crab coconut curry soup; jerk chicken salad with greens; and seafood curry stew with shrimp, carrots, fish, plantains and potatoes were inspired by her stepfather, who is Jamaican.
The menu also features tuna poke, squid and pork salad, smoked pork sliders, pineapple stuffed with shrimp and Chinese sausage fried rice and mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish made of fried plantains mashed with salt, garlic and oil that can be mixed with fried pork.
While the menu is as diverse as Mitchell’s background, her goal is to have a festive eatery.
“I wanted it to be a very fun restaurant,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t want it to be fine dining, but I wanted it to have great service, and I wanted it to be fun.”
Mitchell said she was nervous about opening her first restaurant.
“I was actually way more nervous than I should have been because we haven’t had time to get to the outside,” Mitchell said. “We just wanted to get it open, you know, and then kind of work out the kinks as you go to see what we need to change.”
She was also nervous because opening a restaurant is stressful, she said.
“It’s been overwhelming at times and great at times,” Mitchell said. “I think that everybody that opens a restaurant feels the same way. I’ve opened restaurants with other people, and that’s stressful too.”
The restaurant has been open for a few weeks, and Mitchell said it has received good responses from customers.
“We’ve had so much good feedback, and the town of Carolina Beach has been really nice and everything’s been pretty smooth,” Mitchell said.
Because Salt Fish opened during the offseason at Carolina Beach, the restaurant is currently open Tuesday through Saturday, starting at 5 p.m.
Mitchell plans on adjusting those hours during the summer but is also working on finishing renovations at the location.
The inside is decorated with leafy green plants in every corner and with a white-and-tan color scheme. The outside and bathrooms still need work, Mitchell said.
Her current attention will be on the renovations and on the menu, Mitchell said.
“I’m just focused on the food and keeping it interesting, fresh and delicious,” she said.
She hopes that people who come to her restaurant enjoy the unique flavors of her wide-ranging menu.
“I hope they experience food maybe that they don’t eat often or never,” Mitchell said. “And I hope they get a tiki bar drink in a fun glass that makes them smile and you know, want to hang out with their friends.”