On the corner of Main and Corcoran the historic Hill Building, aka Suntrust Building, is undergoing a major renovation. It will soon open as the 21c Museum Hotel and Counting House Restaurant. The 21c Hotel brand is known for becoming integral members of the communities in which they operate. They provide not only sumptuous yet warm and hospitable lodging to visitors but they also welcome the community to their well-curated contemporary art exhibitions and their widely acclaimed restaurants such as Proof on Main in Louisville and Metropole in Cincinnati. Chef Josh Munchel will be at the helm of Counting House Restaurant in Durham. In 2012 when Metrople opened he was on the opening team as a sous chef. While at Metropole he helped the restaurant earn a spot on the Bon Appetit list of Best New Restaurants 2013 and it was also named Best New Restaurant 2013 by Cincinnati Magazine. I think it should be noted that true to 21c’s goal of becoming community members, Chef Munchel made the move to Durham over 6 months ago in an effort to get to know the city and its food culture. He is often out and about downtown. I met him recently and was curious about him and his vision for the restaurant so asked if he’d be willing to answer a few questions. He agreed and also generously shared a recipe giving a glimpse into his culinary style. Chef Munchel is enthusiastic about exploring Southern foodways and bringing his style of cuisine to Durham, a city he seems to have genuinely embraced. I think we’re in for a treat with Counting House.
1) When did you know you wanted to become a chef? In high school! I really loved photography and I wanted to focus on shooting food. That evolved into wanting to learn more about my subject matter and starting to cook. As I learned how to cook my love for my subject grew. Here we are years later and I am still in love and learn something new every day.
2)What was your biggest kitchen disaster as a new chef? I have had a good deal of mistakes throughout my career, but nothing I would deem a disaster yet! There are very few things that can happen in the kitchen that we can’t start over and learn from.
3) What are 3 tools you have in your restaurant kitchen that are also must-have items for the home cook? A good knife, a vita mix, and a cast iron Dutch oven, which I use for everything from roasting larger cuts of meat in the oven to stews. I also use my Dutch oven in place of a crockpot, you can leave it on low and it will work the same.
4) What 3 items do you always have in your refrigerator? Now that the South is my home, Duke’s mayonnaise is in my fridge. Do the other two really matter after that? Big solid ice cubes for the after work bourbon, and last but not least tater tots.
5) What’s your cooking style and what can patrons look forward to from Counting House? My style is clean and simple, I want to let the ingredients speak for themselves. I also like to think globally and act locally – infusing local ingredients and cooking traditions with a worldly perspective. We will source as many ingredients as possible from here in the region including celebrating the state’s tradition of sea food. People can expect a fresh, light-handed approached and a reflection of the spice trade and migration of people throughout history. They can also expect to be treated as if they were invited into our home and an inspiring and humble experience.
PRESERVED MUSSELS WITH SUMAC SODA CRACKERS
Recipe by executive chef Josh Munchel of Counting House at 21c Museum Hotel Durham
10 pounds mussels*
2 large fennel bulbs
1 bulb garlic
3 Fresno chili peppers (with seeds)
Zest of 4 lemons
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
2 cups white wine
First, wash mussels. In a large pot, add wine and mussels. Steam the mussels on medium-high until the majority of the mussels have opened. Note: some mussels may not open. Discard the unopened mussels. Place opened mussels in the refrigerator to cool.
While the mussels are cooling, thinly slice the fennel, garlic and Fresno chili peppers using a mandolin. Using a vegetable peeler, zest the lemons, being careful to get as little white pith as possible. Thinly julienne the lemon zest. In a pot add olive oil, fennel, garlic, lemon zest and peppers. Cook on low heat until the fennel becomes translucent. Place the oil in the refrigerator to chill.
When mussels are cool, remove them from their shells by pulling the beard of the mussel.
When the oil and all of its contents has cooled, mix in the mussels. Let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for at least eight hours.
Serve mussels in oil mixture.
* I get my mussels from Costco. They’re very affordable, about $2.25 a lb, and always fresh.
SUMAC SODA CRACKERS
30-40 Saltine crackers
2 sticks melted butter
5 tablespoons Ground Sumac**
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread out saltines on a baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, brush melted butter on the crackers. Sprinkle the ground sumac on the crackers with a heavy hand. Bake crackers until golden, about five minutes. Remove crackers from oven and let sit until room temperature.
**Sumac can be found at Whole Foods, Neomonde (Morrisville/Raleigh) or the Med Deli Market (Chapel Hill)
Place mussels and oil mixture in small mason jars. Serve the jars with a fork and a small stack of crackers. To eat, place mussels and oil mixture on a cracker using a fork and enjoy!
For more information about 21c and Counting House, http://www.21cmuseumhotels.com/durham/