International Inspiration

Chef Christopher Wheeler in his second home: the Ports of Call kitchen. Photo by Bethany Turner

Nestled at a cozy table with good friends and family, one can feel both “transported and at home” in Ports of Call Bistro (116 N. Howe St., Southport). Such is the goal for proprietors Jake Pfohl and Ray Aeayan. Rich jewel tones complement rustic walls. Deep blue geometric cut-outs pepper the hallway, and maps of the Mediterreanean serve as the backdrops for soup du jour and specially crafted sandwiches and entrees. Freshly baked goods from the hands of Aeayan himself beckon from the glass case: lemon cake, sticky toffee pudding, and pumpkin and praline cheesecake tantalize from afar. This is the home of Executive Chef Christopher Wheeler.

The calm and friendly chef is not of the Gordon Ramsay persuasion (though, we’ve not seen him under fire in a dinner rush). Rather Wheeler is eloquently coming into his newly acquired role as head of the galley. Not yet in this position for a full year, Wheeler took over the kitchen after the former chef, a regionally celebrated Rhonda Uhlmann, departed to begin a new endeavor of her own. Do not underestimate Wheeler’s youth for inexperience, however—his dishes are pleasing even the most ornery of palates.

The global flavors Ports of Call is known for are no new concept for Wheeler. His first foray into the field was a three-year stint at P.F. Chang’s before heading off to study at culinary school. After gaining experience in the bustling Charlotte restaurant scene, Wheeler moved to Pinehurst to cook for the restaurant within the boutique Jefferson Inn. This all culminated to his relocation to Southport, taking a position under the helm of  Chef Jim Greene in Bella Cucina. “I get a lot of my inspiration from him,” Wheeler tells. “He’s from New York; he’s retired and lives on Oak Island now. He taught me a lot—he has a lot of energy. Oh, and Bobby Flay.”

A few years later, Wheeler’s career path brought him a little closer to the waterway—and much closer to running his own kitchen. “I got a job with Ray and Jake; they opened about a year and a half ago,” he recalls. “I’ve been here since the beginning. I was working under Chef Rhonda, and I took over in March.”

One soup du jour from Chef Wheeler: fish and corn chowder made with catfish and cod. Photo by Bethany Turner

Admitting a decline in customers after Uhlmann’s departure, Wheeler’s skills garner him well-deserved attention from the community. “We’ve had a good reception from customers,” he says. “A lot of people followed Rhonda, but now I’ve got a little fan base. Everyone says our soups here are the best soups in town; they’ll come in here just for that sometimes—our sauces, too.”

On the day I met Chef Wheeler, prior to ever shaking his hand, I became enamored with his fish and corn chowder—a bone-soothing reprieve from the chilling rain outside. Catfish, cod and creaminess gave the soup a savory, homey appeal. A sprig of thyme (one of my favorite herbs) offered an irresistible aroma and beautiful aesthetic. I followed the course with Wheeler’s oyster po’boy. The classic buttery and salty taste of the oyster was rounded out by Wheeler’s tzatziki sauce, a tip-of-the-hat to their Mediterranean base.

Leading the Ports of Call kitchen has allowed Wheeler to craft his own menus for the spring, summer, fall, and soon, winter. Creations have included Moroccan paella, shrimp diablo, and littleneck clams served with chorizo. Understandably, he enjoys working with Mediterranean, Italian and oriental flavors. However, expanding his culinary chops, Wheeler is now experimenting with the cuisine of other countries. “I just recently started cooking a lot of Indian—so turmeric, mustard seed, curries,” he explains.

Despite the international inspiration, one of the most important rules for Ports of Call, and Wheeler especially, is that they utilize nearby ingredients. “I like to support the local economy—the fishermen and farmers around here,” he affirms. “It’s better than getting it shipped from California. Whenever I can, whenever it’s possible, I like to buy local over U.S. Foods. They let me know when something special is coming in, like Haag and Sons—they do a great job. Their fish is some of the best fish around.”

Folks can expect the winter menu to feature heartier entrées, such as stews. “Maybe osso bucco,” Wheeler considers, “maybe put that on the menu. It’s veal; the center bone is braised and stewed with carrots, onions, celery, tomatoes, rosemary, red wine and broth. Serve it over garlic mashed potatoes; it’s a really homestyle kind of food.”

As well, a new prix-fixe menu makes an appearance on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It features three courses for $21.95, available from 5 p.m. to close. The menu will continue to change, but its initial run offered an enticing first impression. Pan-seared wild Atlantic salmon melded with a lemon and tarragon butter; chicken breast scalloppini entertained with a fire-roasted red-pepper jelly; linguine in spicy marinara danced with mussels.

The menu will offer a choice of specialty soup or salad, three entrées, and two desserts prepared by Aeayan. During the first prix-fixe, he made bon-bons with red velvet cake covered with chocolate, and a “Food for the Gods” bar with dates and walnuts.

Overall, with Chef Wheeler’s open mind toward global dishes and serving locally sourced foods, we’re eager to encounter his next conceptions.

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