Photo Credit: Ryan Fipps, Art and Soul Photography
By Liz Biro
Sit at the manna bar, located on Princess Street in historic downtown Wilmington, N.C., and look left. You’ll catch a glimpse of the kitchen behind smoky glass. Stoves and ovens press against stainless steel work tables, with just enough room for a single-file line of chefs in between. The tiny table perpendicular to the galley is the pastry station. Just-cut, from-scratch pasta often covers the makeshift work station helming the other end.
Tight places require a delicate dance. The beat masters are executive chef Jameson Chavez and pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado-Paredes. No one knows the manna kitchen better than these two. Chavez has been at manna from the beginning. Parades arrived not long after. Their democratic approach to decision-making at this AAA four-diamond-rated restaurant keeps manna on the list of Wilmington’s best restaurants.
Everyone has a say in the new American menu, from creating dishes to brainstorming their light-hearted titles. Take a Break Diver Eight brings seared sea scallops with fava beans, roasted maitake mushrooms, braised spring onions and basil crema.
A Las Cruces, N.M., native, Chavez regularly blends Southwestern influences with classic French technique. Parades, from Yonkers, taps her New York City experience for artistic desserts that often serve surprises. Think orange caramel with brown-sugar-roasted, peach-filled crepes.
Space constraints also mean limited freezer space, which doesn’t bother Chavez and Alvarado-Paredes, as long as she has room for her luscious buttermilk ice cream and other frozen desserts. Both relish fresh and local ingredients. More than a few farmers deliver the bounty in person.
Chavez and Alvarado-Paredes also spread the word about manna and the Wilmington dining scene. Earlier this year, they took the show west with other top North Carolina chefs for a Hickory soup kitchen fund-raising dinner at that city’s Highland Avenue restaurant. More recently, they cooked at the inaugural 40 Eats dinner July 17 at Bakery 105. The new Wilmington chefs collective 40 Eats promotes Wilmington’s best restaurants and encourages development of quality places to dine.
Why do you cook?
Chavez: I enjoy eating and working with food, and how you can change or elevate an ingredient, how you can take a tough piece of meat and make it come out succulent. I cook because I really like feeding people. And I also cook because of the people that are in the restaurant industry. When you work with people in the back of the house long enough it seems like there’s a bond. You become more like a family than a team.
Alvarado-Paredes: I cook because I love to eat, and I enjoy feeding people who also love to eat.
What’s the best dish you have ever made?
Chavez: Oh I don’t know. I did like one I did recently. It was a red-chili-braised octopus over a sauce of almonds with raisins and black olives with shaved carrot jicama salad.
Alvarado-Paredes: I’m not sure what the best thing I’ve ever made is. I’m my biggest critic so I usually always find room for improvement in dishes.
What are you cooking now that diners should know about?
Chavez: I really like the pork chop. It’s a brined and grilled pork chop from Carolina Heritage Farms in South Carolina with poblano coulis, sweet potato dumplings and black-eyed pea salad.
Alvarado-Paredes: I’ve been researching alternatives to traditional desserts that will fulfill some of the prevalent dietary restrictions. I’m not very familiar with gluten-free flours and dairy-free substitutes, so if diners have any tips I’m all ears.
What’s your darkest food secret?
Chavez: It’s not too dark, but I do have yellow mustard that I keep in my fridge. I put it on fries.
Alvarado-Paredes: I like to eat greasy salty sugary foods. I don’t really hide it from anyone. I just try to minimize my consumption.
About Liz Biro
Liz Biro spent most of her life in Southeastern North Carolina. These days, she is the food/dining reporter for the Indianapolis Star.
Fortunately, Liz travels south often. She writes food, restaurant and culture stories for us on a regular basis. Besides being a longtime, talented journalist who has covered everything from local fisheries to capital politics, Liz has worked as a chef.
She possesses an abiding passion for good food skillfully prepared with wonderful ingredients. Liz has worked with us for the past two years. We’re delighted that she has an expanded role with Wilmington Today.