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Mountains to Sea: The quest for fresh seafood

art frDebbie Milner has a simple philosophy.

“If I won’t eat it, I won’t sell it,” she said.

Standing next to a large display case at Sentelle’s Seafood in downtown Clyde, Milner points out all of the right-off-the-boat and shipped to Southern Appalachia products her family business offers.

“Right there is flounder from the coast of North Carolina, halibut from Alaska and over there is live lobster from Maine,” she proudly stated.

Entering its 53rd year, Sentelle’s has established itself as a seafood hub for foodies, fish freaks and those curious about the endless possibilities of culinary delights. And yet, even though Sentelle’s has been around for half a century, the idea of fresh seafood in the mountains still has a stigma to shake, one that chefs, restaurants and food stores around Western North Carolina have been erasing in recent years amid a food culture explosion in and around our region.

“There’s a difference in technology, shipping and in culinary attitudes in the mountains these days when it comes to seafood,” said Doug Weaver, co-owner and head chef at The Sweet Onion in Waynesville. “That, and the shifting palettes and cultural diversity of our area.”

 

Making change

It’s lunchtime on a recent Thursday. The dining floor and kitchen are buzzing at The Sweet Onion. Regarded as one of the finest restaurants in Western North Carolina, the location is well known for its cosmopolitan offerings. The business incorporates the best in local farm-to-table meat and produce, as well as products from an array of high-quality food vendors — a key product being seafood, from across the state and around the country. 

“You’ve got to think that for a long time, a lot of the ‘seafood’ restaurants in the area were serving crap seafood, whatever frozen stuff they could get, and they really dug a hole,” Weaver said. “Fresh seafood as a product has been available in the mountains for years. It’s just now you’re getting restaurants and owners that are good enough, and have the experience and knowledge, to know how to use the products.”

Weaver said that right of out of the gate, seafood in the mountains of Western North Carolina has a big hurdle to tackle, which are tourists frequenting this area from fresh fish capitals like the coast of Florida, Charleston and Atlanta. 

“There’s a certain stigma, where someone might think, ‘Well, how’s that hillbilly going to know how to handle raw oysters?’” he said. “People can sometimes be weary, and that’s because back then, up here, maybe some folks weren’t doing their best to offer the best product possible — that’s all changed now, if you’re not doing it high quality it won’t sell.”

Besides massive advances in technology and shipping, the mere availability of seafood products, either native or exotic, has increased dramatically to where prices are dropping in a competitive marketplace. Thus, with those price drops, restaurants now have affordable and delicious items right at the fingertips with the click of a button or quick phone call to their vendors.

“Nowadays, I can get a call from one of our vendors on great deal for crab or shrimp or whatever — it’s amazing,” Weaver said. “And with all of those products, we are also trying new varieties, especially when certain species of fish have been put on the endangered list. It’s all about finding that plentiful, high quality fish.”

 

Friendship through fish

Right down the road from The Sweet Onion in downtown Waynesville is Eric’s Fresh Fish Market. Opened last summer, it’s the third location of the independent business, which also includes the company’s flagship store in Sylva and other spot in Franklin.

“When I take fish out and open the lid of the containers, people are blown away by how fresh it is,” owner Eric Hendrix smiled. “They are blown away by the quality, that the edges aren’t dry, that it hasn’t been sitting under a lamp, that all the flavors haven’t mingled — it’s just stunning.”

With deep family roots in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Hendrix has permanently resided in the Sylva area for over 30 years. Once an English professor at Western Carolina University in nearby Cullowhee, he looked for ways to supplement his income, and saw a need for fresh seafood and fish in his town. 

“And my wife and I were looking for healthier ways to eat,” he said. “Around here it was either you could have beef, pork or chicken, or you could have chicken, pork or beef.”

Hendrix has had a lifelong love of fish. He spent many years of his childhood living in Panama, fishing alongside his skilled father. The young Hendrix also for a time owned Mi Casa in Franklin, one of the first Mexican restaurants in the mountains, where he’d feature exotic fish entrees and specials. He looks at fish as a cleaner meat, one with innumerable ways to prepare and present for all to enjoy with gusto.

“When I first started the fish market back in 2008, I didn’t know a whole lot about fish, just about what fish I liked,” he said. “But now, I know a lot, and it’s been a lot of fun to learn so much about all the different types of fish out there. I learned a lot from simply listening to my customers. How did they cook their fish? What were their recipes? People are always wanting to tell you those things.”

When asked about the stigma of “fresh seafood” in the mountains, Hendrix immediately shot back a response.

“Did you see where your chicken came from? Did you see where your beef was processed? Ever been to a large chicken processing plant and came out craving wings?” he chuckled. “I mean, why wouldn’t fresh fish be available more and fresher in the mountains these days? The fish we get is captured, processed on the boat, iced down and shipped — the turnover is so quick.”

After seven years selling fresh seafood, Hendrix is curious about opening a fourth branch of his business. He’s also looking forward to building on relationships with other local organizations and companies, which would include food tastings or pairings, perhaps even educational programs and fundraising benefits with fresh fish as the connector between people and a just cause. To kick-start this intent, Hendrix will team up with Tonic Craft Beer Market for an inaugural crawfish boil at the Greening Up the Mountains celebration on April 25 in downtown Sylva.

“I love the communities here,” he said. “I love serving people. I love the relationships I have with my customers and our employees. It’s about the people who work with me and the people who support us.”

 

The art of mom and pop

And it’s that relationship with its customers Sentelle’s Seafood also cherishes.

“We’ve been here a really long time,” Milner said. “We don’t just come in here, flick the lights on and stand behind the counter. We are constantly cleaning, rearranging and making sure everything is top quality and fresh.”

Originally known as Carolina Grocery, the business was purchased in 1962 by Milner’s parents, William and Shirley Sentelle, who still, to this day, own the company, with Milner overseeing the seafood operation. In the beginning, William owned three shrimp boats on the South Carolina coast, all hauling in fresh product for the mountains. Though the boats were eventually sold, Sentelle’s still purchases items from those same people.

“There are very few ‘mom and pop’ businesses left these days, and we probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our seafood selection,” Milner said. “We get fresh seafood delivered in here almost every single day. You have a quick turnaround and that’s it — you’ve really got to be on your game. I couldn’t bring in this much fish if I couldn’t turn it around. It’s major money purchasing the inventory we have here.”

Sentelle’s gets customers from all over Southern Appalachia, all in search of that fresh meat from the sea. Milner crosses paths with folks daily who rave about Sentelle’s, where they are praised for their affordable industry prices and succulent offerings, all of which can hold their own with what one might come across on the coast. 

“We’ve spent a long time building the good reputation we have — it’s what has made us who we are today,” she said.

 

 

Craving seafood?

• The Smoky Mountain Oyster & Seafood Festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds. Oysters made everyway possible — raw, steamed, friend, etc. Shrimp, clams, barbecue, and more. Oysters and seafood will be prepared by J. Arthur’s Restaurant in Maggie Valley. The beer tent will feature selections from Asheville Brewing and Green Man. There will also be Budweiser products, wine, malt coolers and other refreshments. Live music will be provided by Al Coffee & Da Grind and The Mile High Band. There will also be a free interactive kid’s zone, which includes corn hole, mini-golf, face painting, bubbles and balloon twisting. Tickets are $5 in advance (on Eventbrite), $8 at the gate. Children ages 12 and under are admitted free. www.smokymtnoysterfest.com

• There will be an oyster roast from 6 to 10 p.m. April 17 at The Bascom in Highlands. The event will be in celebration of the center for visual art’s recent expansion. Free steamed oysters. Other food and drinks available. Live bluegrass music by WellStrung from 7 to 9 p.m. www.thebascom.org.

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